It lasted no more than a couple of minutes: then the bus, and the players it contained, disappeared into the peace of the stadium. The job was done. The flags came down and the flares sputtered out. The electricity, though, remained.
Credit Andrew Yates/Reuters
Ever since Liverpool was drawn against Manchester City for the quarterfinals of the Champions League, those few minutes, long before the start of the game, had been the focus of intense debate, a convenient shorthand for what seemed to be the great unknown in the two-game tie.
City is clearly technically superior to Liverpool: Its position atop the Premier League, where it may be crowned champion as soon as this weekend, is conclusive proof of that.
But Pep Guardiola’s City squad is not yet as emotionally wedded to the Champions League as Liverpool’s is. It does not have the weight of history in European soccer behind it. It has not yet accrued immunity to the sort of atmosphere, the high-stakes hostility, that this competition can generate, in certain places at least. How it coped under the lights and in the bear pit of Anfield, the theory ran, would decide how the tie would go, and the test would start on the corner of Arkles and Anfield Road.
Not that City was especially happy about that. The club expressed concern to the Merseyside Police, the local constabulary, about the risk of disobedience. But rather than cancel the “welcome,” the police decided to reroute it, in the hope of controlling it.
It did not work. Those projectiles did enough damage to the bus that City had to call for a replacement for the ride home. The original, Guardiola said, was “destroyed,” and in no condition to make the journey of about an hour back to Manchester. Jürgen Klopp, Liverpool’s manager, immediately apologized for the behavior of a handful of his team’s fans, and the club released a condemnatory statement, too. The police said they would comb through video footage to identify the perpetrators.
In that context, it would be wrong to romanticize those few minutes, to shrug off a few smashed windows as a price worth paying for a decent bit of noise at a soccer game.
Similarly, it would be inaccurate to portray it as a spontaneous, organic expression of an inherently superior fan culture. These welcomes are common in Europe — Real Madrid often sees much larger crowds greet its arrival to Champions League games — and, as ever, there were far more with cameras recording the event than partaking of it; this is 2018, after all, where everything that might be shared is in some way performative. It was the same on the bus: the players, inside, were on their phones, filming the people filming them outside.
Credit Peter Powell/EPA, via Shutterstock
But that does not justify the scorn the display generated, particularly in the anticipation of it. Soccer is now too scientific, too professional, too driven by the quantifiable for the actions of fans to count for anything, ran one strand of logic: The players are deaf to the jeers, inured to intimidation.
Besides, went another, the fabled Anfield atmosphere has faded in recent years. This Manchester City team has been to Naples, to San Paolo. It has played in the Bernabéu, Camp Nou and the Allianz Arena in Munich. Anfield would hold no fears, no matter how many gathered on the corner of Arkles Road.
Correlation is not causation, but it would be foolish to separate the atmosphere on Wednesday night from the outcome. Manchester City, the best team in England and perhaps in Europe, crumbled, losing by 3-0, swept aside by Liverpool in a breathtaking first half and then resisted in a tense, anxious second.
Guardiola scotched the idea that his team might have been affected by the atmosphere — it was “good to live a Champions League game” at Anfield, he said — but it certainly looked a little like that. Strange things happen at this stadium in this competition: Thomas Tuchel said as much after Borussia Dortmund lost here in the Europa League two years ago. “It was as though the crowd knew what was going to happen,” he said.
City did all it could to stifle the noise, forcing Liverpool to play toward the Kop in the first half, rather than the second, and then spending the first few minutes in calm possession of the ball, hoping to quiet the crowd.
None of it worked. Anfield crackled all night. It roared Liverpool on as it attacked, again and again, in the “15- or 20-minute spell” that Guardiola later said cost his team the game, and it lifted the team up as it rocked back on its heels in the second half, desperately keeping City at bay.
That, surely, is why fans go to games and sing, and shout, and sometimes scream: in the belief that it has some intangible effect on their team, and the opposition.
And that it worked — or appeared to work, for now — is, in a way, heartening. Soccer is indeed more scientific now, more coolly professional, more dismissive of the intangible. Anfield, on one night only, offered a reminder that, sometimes, the chaos takes over, that everything is up for grabs, and that the obvious and the logical does not have to happen. That is why they gathered, hours before kickoff, where Arkles Road meets Anfield Road: to do all they could.