Liverpool fans were dreaming of Champions League glory as they turned their city into a sea of red ahead of the hotly-anticipated showdown with Real Madrid in Kiev on Saturday.
After a week dominated by the frustration of Liverpool supporters who were unable to travel to the Ukraine for the final of Europe’s elite club competition, the big day arrived with anticipation at fever pitch among those who stayed on Merseyside.
Two travel companies axed flights, leaving diehard fans scrambling to find a way to travel to Kiev.
For those who couldn’t make it, the party was already underway in pubs and bars in the city centre.
Shops and streets were decked out in red banners, scarves and posters, reflecting Liverpool fans’ belief that by full-time in Kiev they will be celebrating the club’s sixth European Cup and first since 2005.
“There’s this momentum around the city,” said Danny Byrne, 43, doing a roaring trade in flags and scarves outside the club’s Anfield stadium, which will later host a sold out 30,000 viewing event on jumbo screens.
“There’s this real belief that we’re going to do it and it’s our destiny. All the stars are aligned.”
The showdown in the Ukrainian capital — 1,400 miles (2,300 kilometres) east of Liverpool — follows a momentous season which has seen the Reds plunder 46 goals in 14 games, making it back to the Champions League final for the first time in 11 years.
But to lift the famous trophy, they must stop holders Real winning the competition for a third successive year in a confrontation some fans see as a David and Goliath climax to an historic season.
“Underestimate the underdog and you get bitten,” warned 56-year-old fan Arthur Tutte, showing off his Liverpool FC tattoo outside Anfield. His son was one of the fans who fell victim to the “utter shambles” of travel chaos, but was fortunately able to find another route to Kiev.
In the morning, packed trains arrived at Lime Street station, spilling chanting fans who have made the pilgrimage to Liverpool onto platforms.
– ‘Hell of a big game’ –
The centre of the city — already busy during the British bank holiday weekend — was a sea of red football strips.
Egypt striker Mohamed Salah’s number 11 shirt was a favourite among the crowd — and at the official Liverpool merchandise store where stocks were dented by keen shoppers.
Salah has scored 44 goals in all competitions to lead Liverpool back to the Champions League final thanks to memorable wins over Manchester City and Roma in the quarter-finals and semi-finals respectively.
Aboard a train from London filled with fans was James Beaney, 42, carrying a mask of Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp, but suffering from match day nerves.
“It’s a hell of a big game against another European giant,” he told AFP.
“You’ve got to give Real Madrid respect but I think we’ve got nothing to be afraid of,” he reasoned.
Anfield was a hive of activity, echoing with the club’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone” anthem hours before the 1845 GMT kick off.
Inside Anfield, stewards were welcoming fans for the BT Sport viewing party and technicians tested confetti cannons — anticipating a cause for celebration later in the evening.
Cars with flags lapped the stadium honking horns to cheers, with one female fan hanging out of the window, chanting “Allez, Allez, Allez” — the title of the season’s favourite fan chant that goes: “We’ve conquered all of Europe, We’re never going to stop.”
Pensioner John Hagen will watch the match at home, but he stopped by the stadium earlier in the day with his dog Fergal, walking him on a Liverpool FC collar.
“I’ve just come down to soak it up,” he told AFP as parents and children in full football kits lunched in the grounds. “It will be a hell of a game.”
Outside nearby pub The Sandon, maintenance man Alan Gedman climbed a ladder to untangle an “Allez, Allez, Allez” flag with great care as workers rolled some 90 kegs of beer into the bar in preparation for the day’s trade.
Fans were already in a frenzy of optimism, amassing to watch the match on a huge screen on a double decker bus parked outside — chanting “When the reds go marching in.”
“I’ve been here since six o’clock this morning!” Gedman said.
Enjoying a beer among the high-spirited crowd was Tony Jones. “I’m an Evertonian but I want Liverpool to win for the city”, he said.