Big European nights are a staple of Anfield folklore. Continental competition under the floodlights in front of the Kop has developed its own mystique.
A belief has developed that anything is possible when the crowd and the team feed off each other. The old ground becomes a cauldron. The atmosphere makes even the mighty quake.
They do not come mightier than Real Madrid, who come to Merseyside tonight protecting a 3-1 lead in the second leg of the quarter-finals of the Champions League. Even before kick-off there is a sense of regret surrounding the game for Liverpool: if only fans were allowed inside the stadium, the task would be so much easier.
Real’s superiority last week in the Spanish capital was so pronounced that it is hard to see how Jurgen Klopp’s team can turn the tie around. The presence of a full house of rabid supporters has tipped the balance on many occasions. Without fans, Liverpool are half the team.
At least that’s the received logic. Much of the dialogue that surrounds the epic European encounters at Anfield can be ascribed to myth-making. The legendary games roll off the tongue: the 4-0 victory over Barcelona two years ago; the 3-0 rout of Manchester City 12 months earlier; the 4-3 comeback against Borussia Dortmund in 2016. They are only the recent examples. The legends go back to relative antiquity – Chelsea in 2005, St Etienne in 1977, Inter Milan in 1965.
Many of these games are cast as Liverpool overcoming massive odds. Certainly, no one could have expected Klopp’s men to overturn the 3-0 deficit against Barca. Yet what is often forgotten when the sagas are retold is just how good the teams and players involved in these games were. A fading Barcelona were blown away by a side blossoming into Champions League and title-winning greatness. The same group of players where coalescing as a unit when they dispatched City. Against Chelsea 16 years ago, Liverpool were led by an all-time great in Steven Gerrard and a brilliant manager in Rafa Benitez. St Etienne came up against a team that fell one game short of winning the treble and Inter met Bill Shankly’s first dominant side.
The only instance where the crowd could realistically be said to have lifted an average side to an unlikely victory was against Thomas Tuchel’s Dortmund, when the Germans collapsed and shipped three goals in the final 24 minutes to lose 4-3 on the night and 5-4 on aggregate.
The majority of fabled Anfield nights have been about the players, not the crowd. Even the most fevered ambiance cannot turn sub-par sides into miracle workers. Regrets over the empty stands are valid but no excuse. Liverpool’s failings this season can only be attributed in the smallest part to the absence of fans.
Klopp is an emotional manager. His teams take on this characteristic. This has many positives but there are downsides. Sometimes – the 3-1 Europa League final defeat by Sevilla five years ago is an example – the manager tries to rally supporters rather than players when things are going wrong. There will be nowhere to turn to tonight. It is all down to the team.
There were obvious lessons to be learnt in the Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano last week. Toni Kroos and Luka Modric cannot be allowed time on the ball. The Liverpool midfield were static and the failure of the pressing game let Real set the tempo. That cannot be allowed to happen again.
Trent Alexander-Arnold gives the side so much going forward but either he needs to be more circumspect against Vinicius Jr or provided with extra cover. Tactics, more than temperament, will determine whether a comeback is on the cards.
The fans have been given too much credit for the club’s exploits over the years. There have been many loud, raucous nights that fizzled out and ended in defeat. They get quickly forgotten.
The real heroes of the wild European adventures have been the players. With or without supporters, it’s all down to the men on the pitch.