Ken Early: Liverpool outplayed as last chance of glory slips away
Jürgen Klopp’s side fail to impose themselves on game as Sevilla refuse to be bullied
St Jakob-Park in Basel was festooned with Liverpool banners bearing the usual sort of “We Are Liverpool” messages. One flag, evidently based on a Joey Jones banner from the 1977 European Cup run, proclaimed, in somewhat strained terms: “We tore apart United, knocked down the yellow wall, sunk the yellow submarine, now we’re in Basel brushing off Sevilla.”
Liverpool started as favourites because of the impressive run to the final alluded to in the banner. Play like they did at Anfield in the semi-final, and victory would surely follow.
There was, however, one major imponderable. Cüneyt Çakir had been the right kind of referee for Liverpool’s approach in the second leg of the semi. He had stood back and watched while they roughed up Villarreal, who cracked up under the onslaught. Liverpool would have liked another strong silent type wearing the black in Basel, but Swedish referee Jonas Eriksson whistled for three fouls against them in the first two minutes. This was not going to be like Anfield.
And Sevilla weren’t going to be like Villarreal. The semi-final opponents could have been described as cerebral, even wispy, but Sevilla are a more muscular outfit: a former Stoke City bruiser in Stephen N’Zonzi, the bullish Argentinian Éver Banega pulling the strings in midfield, the powerful Kevin Gameiro at centre forward.
Moment of inspirationLiverpool knew within five minutes they were up against a team they couldn’t bully and, forced to play at Sevilla’s pace, they struggled to impose themselves on the game. After half an hour the Sevilla fans, who took up less than a quarter of the stadium, were outsinging the larger Liverpool contingent. Then a moment of inspiration changed the direction.
Daniel Sturridge is not a player who seems to inspire unqualified admiration in the more driven professionals he has played with: Luis Suárez wasn’t a fan and Steven Gerrard was at best ambivalent about him in his recent autobiography.
Jürgen Klopp’s treatment of Sturridge has been marked by some of that same ambivalence. Early on, he suggested the injury-plagued striker needed to learn the difference between “real pain and just pain.” He has left him out of big matches and whenever he has scored he has usually responded by talking about the need for Sturridge to be fitter. The question over Sturridge has always been whether he has the work ethic to complement his talent.
But nobody can doubt his talent. There seemed little immediate danger to Sevilla as Philippe Coutinho received the ball 30 yards out and transferred it to Sturridge on the left corner of the penalty area. The forward advanced, taking three left-footed touches as Mariano Ferreira retreated, showing him onto his weaker right foot.
He didn’t expect Sturridge to flick the ball past him with the outside of that left foot, curling it beautifully inside David Soria’s far post.
Having scarcely been in the game, Liverpool were now rampant. Sevilla were stunned by the goal and seemed to lose their nerve. Scenting blood, Liverpool went for the kill. Adam Lallana missed the best of a flurry of chances before half-time. Dejan Lovren headed into the net from a corner, but what seemed to be a decisive goal was disallowed for offside against Sturridge.
FrustrationKlopp had celebrated that disallowed goal with abandon and his frustration was clear as he angrily shoved one of his assistants. The whistle went for half-time soon after and he ran up the touchline, passing within a couple of feet of his opposite number, Unai Emery, with whom he had clashed during his time as Dortmund manager. How do you like that, Emery?
Emery was walking slowly and seemed deep in thought. Maybe he was wondering why all the play in the first half had taken place down his team’s left, Liverpool’s right, where Nathaniel Clyne had produced a strong defensive performance. Emery, regarded as one of Spanish football’s finest tactical minds, might have been pondering a change of direction.
The equaliser came faster than anyone could have expected. In the very first move of the second half, Alberto Moreno, as usual Liverpool’s weakest defensive link, met a searching diagonal ball with a feeble header and found himself faced with two attackers.
Coutinho rushed back to help, but Ferreira ran at Moreno, nutmegged him on his way into the box, and crossed for Kevin Gameiro to tap in.
Losing a lead within 18 seconds of a restart is not the sort of mistake a good team makes in a final, and Liverpool’s belief drained away as quickly as it had surged in the last ten minutes of the first half. They had already been clinging on for several minutes by the time Sevilla’s captain Coke swept his side into the lead with a brilliant curling finish from 20 yards, after good approach play had sliced through Liverpool’s midfield.
Klopp responded by throwing on Divock Origi for the disappointing Firmino but within a minute Sevilla had a killer third. Coke popped up on the right side of the box, capitalising again on slack marking from Moreno, and found the far corner with his shot. The linesman flagged for offside, but the referee correctly overruled the decision. Liverpool’s staff ran up the line to join their players’ protests, but they would have been better off saving their energy for the task of scoring two goals in 20 minutes.
ImplicationsHowever, there would be no comeback. Liverpool were well beaten, and they knew it. Their most gifted players, Sturridge and Coutinho, flitted ineffectually around the edges of the game, while Origi’s only contribution was a hefty elbow into the face of a defender.
Liverpool’s players at least stayed to watch Sevilla lift the trophy. By then most of their fans had left the stadium. The implications of the defeat were beginning to sink in. They don’t finish the season with a European trophy. They don’t qualify for the Champions League. They are just the team that finished eighth in England, and they have a lot of hard work to do before they get another chance like the one they wasted here.