Déjà vu, anyone?
For the second time in two seasons, Barcelona has bottled a three-goal lead in a UEFA Champions League knockout tie. As if the 2018 disaster in Rome wasn’t enough, the Lionel Messi-led club squandered yet another guaranteed ticket to the next round. This time, they dropped a 4-0 decision away after thwarting Liverpool 3-0 at the Camp Nou. As a result, they’ve become the first club in Champions League history to be eliminated after winning the first leg by three or more goals.
The fact that this happened to Barcelona isn’t the only similarity…
It seems like Alisson Becker has a thing for overcoming three-goal deficits against Barcelona. Last year, he was part of Roma’s comeback in the second leg of the Champions League quarter-finals, in which the Romans overturned a 4-1 away defeat with a 3-0 home win and advanced on away goals. This year, he was instrumental in Liverpool’s own flipping of the script, keeping another clean sheet while making big stops on Lionel Messi and Jordi Alba.
And it’s for games like this that Liverpool paid €75 million for.
For five seasons from 2013 to 2018, Liverpool had to deal with either of Simon Mignolet or Loris Karius as their starting goalkeeper. Initially, this wasn’t a big issue. In 2013-2014—Mignolet’s debut season with the club—Liverpool came within a single win of clinching their first-ever Premier League title, and Mignolet was a reason why. He kept 10 clean sheets that season—including one against Manchester United—and he put in big performances against Stoke City (where he saved a Jonathan Walters penalty) and Everton (against whom he made nine saves). But Mignolet always had an aura of fallibility in his game, and fans weren’t always the most comfortable with his name in the starting 11, even when he was at his best.
In 2016, Loris Karius was signed from Mainz 05 not long after being voted the second-best goalkeeper in the Bundesliga. The German, who was 22-years-old at the time of his signing, was a well-rated goalkeeper who had experience with various German youth teams. He was given the number one jersey and was expected to be Liverpool’s starting goalkeeper for years to come.
But Karius proved to be an even bigger problem than Mignolet. He was taken out of the starting 11 multiple times due to his clumsiness, resulting in him only making 10 Premier League appearances in 2016-2017. The following season, Karius started showing some signs of why he was voted the second-best Bundesliga goalkeeper by his peers. He even led all Champions League goalkeepers in clean sheets. But when the Champions League final rolled around, Karius lost all composure. He was careless in his handling of Real Madrid’s first goal, throwing the ball right to the feet of Karim Benzema, and his poor hand placement on Gareth Bale’s screamer led to the Welshman’s second of the game and Madrid’s third. Real Madrid piggybacked off of Karius’s sloppiness and won the match by a 3-1 scoreline. Karius has since struggled to recover from that final; he made multiple errors in the following preseason and has experienced a rough loan spell with Beşiktaş.
For five seasons, Liverpool was forced to play Mignolet or Karius in goal; goalkeepers who, even on their best of days, were the weakest links in Jürgen Klopp’s best 11s. Had either of them been the one to start in the comeback against Barcelona, I think it’s fair to say that Liverpool would be watching the 2018-2019 Champions League final from home.
But because of Alisson Becker, it’s a different story.
No doubt Anfield certainly played a significant role as the stage for Liverpool’s comeback, and Divock Origi and Gini Wijnaldum will go down in club history as the slayers of this football Goliath. But the key difference-maker wasn’t “You’ll Never Walk Alone” or the four goals. Rather, it was the bearded Brazilian that guarded the gates of red Merseyside.
It cannot be understated how important it was for Alisson to keep a clean sheet in the second. One Barcelona goal and Liverpool would’ve needed to score five to survive. It was accepted that the visiting Catalans would get on the board. After all, they were the most prolific team left in the competition, with 26 goals scored in 11 games—an average of 2.36 goals scored per match. They also had magicians in Lionel Messi, who will likely win the competition’s top scorer award thanks to his 12 goals, and Luis Suarez and Jordi Alba, who combined for 10 assists in the Champions League.
Yet, Alisson didn’t crack. When Lionel Messi curled a high shot in the 14th minute, Alisson tipped it over the bar. When Philippe Coutinho tried to tuck one under his left side in the 18th minute, Alisson dropped low and parried it away. When Jordi Alba attempted to beat him in-close by catching him slightly out of position, Alisson got his arm in the way. In total, Alisson made five saves, all of them top-class and all of them an example of his composure and the reliability he provides in goal.
It’s not the first time Alisson has bailed Liverpool out of a sticky Champions League situation either. Only five months ago were the Reds fighting for a knockout round spot. They hosted Napoli in the final game of Group C action, needing all three points to clinch second place. Anything less and they’d be demoted to the Europa League. Liverpool would take a 1-0 lead going into the game’s dying minutes, but as the seconds ticked away, José Callejón found a free Arkadiusz Milik in Liverpool’s box. The Polish international took a touch to control before firing, but he was met by the thigh of Alisson. The Liverpool goalkeeper timed his approach to Milik perfectly, and it was this save that salvaged Liverpool’s Champions League hopes and gave them the opportunity to even achieve what they did against Barcelona.
Liverpool now find themselves in the Champions League final — their second in as many seasons. Unlike Barcelona, who’ll be licking their déjà vu wounds, Liverpool will be hoping for some jamais vu when they play either Ajax or Tottenham on June 1. The loss in Kyiv still stings for supporters of the Reds, especially the errors of Loris Karius. But changes have been made, and with the ever-reliable, ever-stupendous Alisson Becker in goal, Liverpool aims to continue creating new Champions League history.