A heart-wrenching loss in Kyiv could have sent Liverpool into a tailspin, but one year on they are more resilient than ever, ahead of another Champions League final.
On May 26, 2018, Liverpool returned to the top of the European mountain after over a decade in the wilderness and, while ultimately falling to defeat, it would prove to be just the start for Jurgen Klopp’s Reds.
The night in Kyiv was littered with ‘what if’ moments but never the thought that they would be forced to wait another 11 years for a return to the big dance.
On the eve of Liverpool’s reappearance in the Champions League group stages this season the manager was insistent there would be no aftershocks: “No damage. No, absolutely not.”
Now 365 days after the Reds left the NSC Olimpiyskiy Stadium empty-handed they are gearing up for their second successive Champions League final, after yet another European campaign to remember.
There was to be no buckling or derailment from the heartbreak of their misfortune, only a burning desire to emerge from the other side stronger than ever.
The Liverpool of yesteryear would have wilted in the aftermath of yet another setback, ruing another decisive defeat.
This team, however, momentarily mulls it over before turning it into a source of fuel for the next challenge which lies in wait.
“Only silly idiots stay on the floor and wait for the next defeat. Of course we will strike back—100 percent.”
And it is that very mindset which ensured their response to Kyiv was to be an emphatic one.
The road to Madrid saw the likes of Bayern Munich, Porto and Barcelona all forced to watch on haplessly as the Reds ran riot and left them in their wake.
The second-leg triumph over Barcelona, in particular, epitomised the growth of the team in a multitude of ways—but it was the inability to consider there was no hope or to doubt a team-mate’s ability which took centre stage.
Mohamed Salah’s now famous shirt, emblazoned with ‘Never Give Up’, was apt for the occasion.
Without quite recognising it at the time the three-goal defeat in the first leg at Camp Nou paved the way for the Reds to come full circle.
While players had three months to lament on Kyiv, they had less than one week to shake off Lionel Messi’s masterclass and bounce back, all the while balancing their Premier League ambitions.
Unlike in May of last year, where Liverpool struggled to adapt to Salah’s mid-game absence, the Reds overcame one of Europe’s top teams without two of their best players from the off, while having also lost Andy Robertson at half-time.
A clear indication as any that since the final whistle rang out in Kyiv Liverpool have only grown stronger and more resilient.
It was clear from the offset that Liverpool were intent on avenging the way in which it all came crumbling down in Ukraine, and the motivation to do so has propelled Liverpool to greater heights as a collective unit.
Improvement Across the Board
Although 13 of the 18 members of the matchday squad who suffered defeat at the hands of Real Madrid remain at the club, and at least eight of the starting XI are likely to be again given the nod on June 1, there is a distinct difference from this season to last.
Unlike in Kyiv, the Reds now play with a more pragmatic approach and the swagger of a title-winning side.
Not to mention an increased level of maturity and patience which has resulted in a number of games being decided in Liverpool’s favour late on.
The collective growth comes as a result of overcoming test after test and enduring another taxing season where every week featured a must-win game.
And it must be said that from front to back every player has taken their game up a notch since the defeat in Ukraine.
The defensive trio of Trent Alexander-Arnold, Andy Robertson and Virgil van Dijk have combined for a staggering 33 assists and seven goals in all competitions, whilst also being key in keeping a total of 26 clean sheets alongside Alisson.
Joe Gomez and Joel Matip, meanwhile, proved instrumental in the first and second halves of the season respectively, while Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane have again been exceptional in the attacking third.
No longer does it feel as though one player’s absence could derail Liverpool’s hopes of silverware.
And so you could go on and on detailing every player’s contribution such is the extent of the ongoing development throughout the squad, but arguably one of the most significant differences is the depth of the Reds’ bench.
Against Real, Klopp had four defensive players including Simon Mignolet, an inexperienced forward in Dominic Solanke—who had only recently scored his first goal for the club—and the duo of Adam Lallana and Emre Can to call upon, the latter of whom had only just returned from injury.
Possible bench vs. Tottenham: Mignolet, Lovren, Gomez, Moreno, Milner, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Lallana, Woodburn, Origi, Shaqiri, Sturridge, Brewster
Hardly a list of names which acts as a source of inspiration.
That feeling failed to dissipate when an early change saw Lallana introduced to fill the void left by leading scorer Salah, while the Spaniards had the likes of Marco Asensio and Gareth Bale, who turned out to be the match-winner.
At the time it felt it was the starting XI or bust, but 365 days later and the feeling could not be any different.
At the Wanda Metropolitano the Reds will be allowed to name 12 substitutes and, while it will result in a mix of youth and experience, Klopp can be confident in the knowledge that any one of those players can have an influence.
The ‘finishers’, so to speak, have worked wonders this season.
The likes of Divock Origi, Gini Wijnaldum, Xherdan Shaqiri, Daniel Sturridge, James Milner and Jordan Henderson have all turned a game around in the Reds’ favour after starting from the bench, for which Klopp also deserves a level of credit for.
You would expect at least five of the aforementioned names to again be the men in waiting in Madrid.
And the fact you could make a case for them to start only goes to show Liverpool are playing at a different level this time round—both individually and as a collective unit.
Unlike against Real, Liverpool will head to the Champions League final this year as the favourites, the big boys against an inexperienced team on the grandest stage in European football.
While the journey to Ukraine felt like a free hit with the Reds not expected to go the distance, they did anyway in a manner which sent shockwaves across the rest of Europe.
It was one hell of a ride conducted by an utterly mad team who would eventually fall short at the final hurdle after series of unfortunate events.
This season, however, the European Cup proved to be a welcome distraction from the pressures of the Premier League title race.
Now, after knowing how that was to end, the Champions League has emerged as the last chance for this brilliant Liverpool side to win the silverware they thoroughly deserve.
The memories of Kyiv will no doubt flash before their eyes throughout the remaining days leading up to the showpiece, but they are a different beast this time.
And Klopp predicted as much the morning after the night before.
“We saw the European Cup, Madrid had all the fucking luck.
“We swear we’ll keep on being cool. We’ll bring it back to Liverpool!”
One more win, Liverpool. Make us dream.