Liverpool fans were planning a “coach greeting” for Manchester City three weeks before their Champions League quarter-final first leg at Anfield on Wednesday night.
“Bring your flares and flags,” a flyer read on social media. “Banners and bangers. Pints and pyro. There will be thousands of scouse voices ready to scare 'em back to Mancland with their tails between their legs before the match even starts.”
There were warnings that this kind of 'welcome' would contravene the Sporting Events Act, which makes it illegal to enter grounds with pyrotechnics, smoke bombs and flares. It happened anyway. And it’s clear that it got under Pep Guardiola’s skin.
Liverpool have quite rightly pledged to help identify those individuals who crossed the line and turned this atmospheric hostility into a missile attack on the City team bus, which rendered it unusable for its scheduled return trip back up the M62.
Guardiola complained afterwards that Merseyside Police knew about plans in advance but didn’t stop it happening. He was caught by Spanish television crews muttering “shame” towards police inside Anfield after City arrived there a few hours before kick-off, and mentioned it again the post-match press conference.
In fact, Guardiola sounded a little bit like the Guardiola of last season in the hot seat after the game. There was talk of Mo Salah being offside for the first goal. He paid backhanded compliments to Liverpool by stating that they had a good 10 or 15 minutes in the first half and scored from their only two chances in that spell. He spoke about the importance of both boxes.
He has been dominant all season long and has rarely had to deal with such an irritation as a three-goal slapping. He was mad as hell that he could not master what his genius ought to be able to control.
Liverpool fans holding up banners and red flares didn’t cause Guardiola to name Ilkay Gundogan in midfield at the expense of Raheem Sterling in attack or select Aymeric Laporte at left back – two decisions that betrayed the Catalan’s usual meticulous approach – but they nonetheless played their part.
City captain Vincent Kompany fell into the trap, too, by opting to turn Liverpool around at the kick off and make them play into the Kop in the first half. Usually, the hosts prefer kicking that way in the second half, being roared on by what is still one of the best home ends in world football. It showed that City were thinking about Anfield and thinking about the atmosphere it could create.
Liverpool fans have been widely derided on social media for their coach greeting plans, mostly by fans of teams who are no longer in the Champions League. Their new song for Europe – Allez Allez Allez – has also been mocked and sneered over, again by fans of less successful clubs.
Liverpool supporters are cultish at the best of times. They truly believe that here, 28 years on from the last time they won their own national title, they are still the biggest club in the land. It leads to ridicule; perhaps no other team inspires as much mirth for their failures.
There is an element of delusion that comes with supporting Liverpool. They are without a decent trophy for more than a decade, their best players seem to use the club as a stepping stone for Real Madrid, Barcelona or, in the case of Sterling, Manchester City.
But the belief persists. And their fans’ refusal to accept their place in the pecking order – even as Abu Dhabi oil money and Russian mineral wealth washes over the European game – comes into its own on nights like this.
They believe they belong here. They hold up their banners with five stars or five European Cups on them. They make demands of their players to live up to expectations in this competition. The delusion serves them well.
Liverpool behave like a team who expect to win the Champions League because they’ve done it so many times in the past. Fathers and mothers tell their sons and daughters about Rome and Wembley and Paris and Athens. They walk around Anfield and they see the images of their former captains holding that cup aloft. It’s in their blood here, just like it’s in the blood of Real Madrid and Bayern Munich and Barcelona.
That sense of expectation can help carry clubs through. It’s no coincidence that Madrid saw off Paris Saint-Germain in the last round and that Barcelona came through against Chelsea. Those two, like Bayern, come into Europe with history, with pedigree and with belief. You can see promise in the play of City, PSG and even Tottenham but there is no substitute for that experience of success, where it drips from the walls of the stadium.
The game has changed beyond recognition at the top level since Liverpool were dominating in the late 1970s and 1980s. The Bosman rule, the offside rule, the back-pass rule and more and more money have alerted the landscape, perhaps forever.
Liverpool are not back at this stage every season but when they are, they only need to see that tiny sliver of light before the momentum builds. It’s part of what carried them through in 2005, it’s part of what carried them through here against City.
Make no mistake, it was Jurgen Klopp and his players – man for man – who were responsible for this victory. Their win against City in the league in January spooked Guardiola to such an extent that he paid them the respect of changing his approach.
They executed two game plans perfectly on Wednesday night – the first-half on the counter, the second sitting deep – and orchestrated one of the finest European nights this stadium has seen. And provided they finish the job next week – suspension to Jordan Henderson and injury to Salah notwithstanding – then this night will become another one they talk about for the decades to come.
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Another one to add to the rich tapestry Liverpool have created in this competition.
So. laugh all you want, at their coach greeting and at their irrational faith that their team will prevail, but remember that it did the trick again.