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Ground Hop #1 – Anfield

Anfield lit up on a crucial Champions League night

Liverpool 1-0 Napoli

UEFA Champions League, Tuesday 11th December 2018

In the first of a new series called “Ground Hop” where I visit stadiums around the country as a neutral fan, I decided to start at Anfield; inside the belly of the beast, and as a Manchester United fan probably the most uncomfortable match I could’ve attended!

Liverpool’s entire Champions League campaign hinged on this result, so make no mistake, this was a big one! I’d heard about European nights at Anfield, and what a match to experience the atmosphere I’d heard so much about. Would it live up to the hype? Were Liverpool fans as partisan as I’d feared? Would the team be as good as last season in this competition? And more importantly, could a Man Utd fan infiltrate Anfield undetected? I was pumped to find out. Bring it on!

The Stadium

Anfield itself is a traditional English four-sided stadium – not like the continental bowl design favoured in new stadia builds – and this adds to the feeling of history and tradition that emanates from the place. Alongside the length of the pitch are two stands, each two-tiers high – the Main Stand and the Kenny Dalglish Stand. Liverpool only named this in 2017, with weird echoes of their hated neighbours at Old Trafford with the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand – I guess imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right?

Anfield's Shankly Gates outside the Kenny Dalglish Stand
Anfield’s Shankly Gates outside the Kenny Dalglish Stand | © Mike Barclay 2018

Access to the ground was really easy, I parked for free in a local Asda, and the facilities were great. My hot dog and coffee came to £6 and tasted better than most. Not bad Anfield, not bad.

Atmosphere

This is what I’d heard so much about, and was keen to experience for myself; mainly as a fan of football, but also out of morbid curiosity to see the enemy up close and personal. It was kind of perverse, really; a staunch Manchester United fan voluntarily planting himself right in the middle of Anfield, observing the ways of another football culture. I might as well have been in another country to be honest, the way the Scouse accent was phlegming all over me from all angles.

Before the teams came out, suddenly the atmosphere changed. “You’ll Never Walk Alone” started playing over the stadium speakers, and from all four stands everybody knew the words.


Livepool fans sing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” at Anfield | © Mike Barclay 2018

As you can tell form my video, pretty much everyone gets on board with the singing which makes a lot of noise. It is something pretty awesome to see, but as an outsider it does feel a bit… cliché. Almost tacky in how predictable it is. But it is a great song, and perfect for a stadium environment, although I’ve heard Celtic do it better. Just saying.

The music I was really looking forward to was the Champions League anthem, now there’s a spine-tingling tune! But no, wait. The Scousers were still singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” all over it. FML.

Liverpool fans are also ridiculously partisan. I mean, the referee did OK I thought, but he was derided for everything. There was a challenge from Virgil Van Dijk on Dries Mertens that looked pretty rough, and resulted in a yellow card. Mertens was down for a while too, but the amount of shit the referee received for that booking was huge. It turns out it should have been a red too, and was actually a potential leg breaker.

The Match

It was really hard to see how Napoli decided to line up for this one, almost as if they weren’t sure of the permutations for either result. Surely then, they would’ve set up for the win? Nope, not really.

They seemed to adopt a counter attacking approach from the start, gifting Liverpool time on the ball as they peppered the Italians’ goal with 23 shots – although only 5 were on target. Napoli actually had more of the possession, but much less territory as they struggled to show any urgency until the final 10 minutes of the game. It was almost like it suddenly dawned on the team that they were on the verge of elimination.

Embed from Getty Images

Virgil Van Dijk was very lucky to escape a red card for his challenge on Dries Mertens in the first half. Although the challenge was robust and he got the ball, it was the follow through that was particularly dangerous, making contact with his ankle with some force. A yellow card for VVD – who misses the next game – however he commanded the defense really well otherwise.

Liverpool were quick and nimble going forward, with the twin threat of Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold down the flanks a real weapon in their armoury. They switched play nicely between defense and offense and often found Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino or Sadio Mané with a neat pass. And then once those three were on the edge of the area, they frequently found themselves in dangerous positions. Often, only the mountainous Kalidou Koubilaly stood in their way. That, and sheer wastefulness.

In the second half, Liverpool blew a hatful of chances to see off the game. It could easily have been 5-0. However a fortuitous Alisson block in the final minutes of the match secured the victory needed to progress. Liverpool rode their luck, but ultimately just about deserved the result on the night.

Despite a strong defense and fluid attack, the midfield was really underwhelming. Jordan Henderson tries really hard but that’s all it is – the perception of effort. He looks busy, without any of the real quality needed to connect defence and attack. Ditto Gini Wijnaldum, who looked a bang average passenger in Liverpool’s attacks.

Summary

I’m not gonna lie, my visit to Anfield was massively uncomfortable for a lot of reasons!

Firstly, Scouse football culture is massively tribal, more so than Mancunian football culture for example. To the point where the fans are almost blind to the team’s flaws, berating the referee for any decision that (often fairly) went the other way. I think United fans are a little more open to actually admitting when they’re team is wrong (especially these days)!

Secondly, despite the spectacle of it all, I found the rendition of YNWA massively cringeworthy to watch (and be in the middle of)! But it was a fantastic occasion to experience first-hand, which is the whole point of me “ground hopping” in the first place.

Finally, actually admitting that Liverpool are a decent team is hard, but they really are a force. Lots of quality going forwards, and plenty of ammunition off the bench despite a flimsy midfield. After the money they spent in the summer they really do have to win a major trophy to show for it, as I mentioned in a previous blog post. They do have the squad to win something.

I really don’t plan on going back to Anfield again – unless I can get tickets for United in the away end – but I’m pretty glad I did.


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