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“Uefa Champions League,” read Leeds’ t-shirts. “Earn it.” It was long something Liverpool sought to do, but as their owners seek automatic entry to a competition they are creating instead, perhaps it mattered not that they could not earn victory at Elland Road. Liverpool had occupied fourth place in the virtual table for an hour; it used to mean something and, if Leeds had their way, it will again. But, after Diego Llorente’s leveller, Jurgen Klopp’s side ended the night in sixth; perfectly adequate for an annual pass to a Super League, perhaps, but not for a season in the Champions League. They may need underhand means to secure a reunion with Real Madrid next year.
On and off the pitch, Leeds were intent on frustrating Liverpool’s ambitions. A club that often savours their status as outsiders took it upon themselves to speak for those repulsed by the prospect of a Super League.
If they threatened to sacrifice themselves for the greater good, motivating Liverpool in a first half when they excelled, Marcelo Bielsa’s side reaped a reward for a refusal to bow to a financial superpower. Weight of pressure told, Llorente scored his first Leeds goal and, like Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City before them, Liverpool became a fourth supposed superpower to draw at Elland Road.
There was an assault on their defence and their reputation. Leeds warmed up in tops instructing them to “earn it,” a message accompanied with “football is for fans”; ever unsubtle, the agent provocateur of a director of football Victor Orta held up his t-shirt for anyone who had missed it. Those words were displayed on a giant banner behind the goal Sadio Mane scored in. The same sentiments were displayed in the visitors’ dressing room; it was not exactly Kevin Keegan and Billy Bremner but Klopp was not impressed.
Elland Road is a traditionally hostile venue and, even in an empty ground, Leeds found ways to make Liverpool’s an unpleasant welcome.
A few Leeds fans yelled “scum” at the coach although the banner reading “RIP LFC” was held by one of Liverpool’s own and reflected others outside Anfield. It was a game with an unusual soundtrack: outside Elland Road, a saxophonist played Abba’s Money, Money, Money
Liverpool benefited from the defiance of Alisson, who was once the world’s most expensive goalkeeper, but also due to two who did not cost Liverpool a penny; the homegrown Trent Alexander-Arnold, who continued his emergence from the first slump of his career with an all-action display to run away from his man-marker Jack Harrison and get the type of assist he rarely records, and the free transfer James Milner.
Making his first appearance at Elland Road for 17 years – the next one can presumably be pencilled in for 2038 – the veteran was excellent; Leeds’ running statistics are famously high, but it was telling that Milner was chosen against them.
Mohamed Salah was not, despite a September hat-trick when their previous meeting finished 4-3. Klopp felt justified in benching his top scorer when the two wingers he preferred played pivotal parts in the goal. Diogo Jota dropped deeper to provide a diagonal pass. Alexander-Arnold ran in behind Harrison and, when Illan Meslier charged off his line, played a first-time pass to give Sadio Mane an open goal. It was just his second strike in 15 league games.
But a story of Liverpool’s season, as Klopp said after the Real stalemate, has been the lack of a finish. There ought to have been another goal. Thiago, restored to the starting 11 after three games on the bench, came close with a thunderbolt that Meslier saved in spectacular style. The goalkeeper also denied Jota, who had latched on to Diego Llorente’s poor back header, and parried the lively Firmino’s snap-shot. Jota headed one chance over and had another tipped away by Meslier, recovering after another ill-advised trip off his line. Salah shot wastefully wide in his cameo and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had an injury-time chance to win it; in keeping with his season, he did not.
And, as Leeds illustrated at Anfield, they refuse to give up. A Liverpool defence without the injured Nat Phillips still required three excellent saves from Alisson, denying Patrick Bamford in the first half, after Fabinho coughed up possession, Harrison, when he wriggled clear in the second, and then Roberts, whose search for a first top-flight goal continues. Bamford hit the bar with a half-volley but it was not Liverpool’s high defensive line that cost them but their set-piece deficiencies as Harrison’s corner was met by Llorente. Although, in a world where results may have lost their meaning, perhaps it did not cost them at all.