Sport Champions League

Sunday 20 May 2018

Comment: Jurgen Klopp’s vision taking shape on big stage

Liverpool's dream of sixth European title driven by manager's hunger

Mohamed Salah has become even more important to Jurgen Klopp did Fernando Torres was to Rafael Benitez during Liverpool’s last march to the Champions League semi-finals. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Mohamed Salah has become even more important to Jurgen Klopp did Fernando Torres was to Rafael Benitez during Liverpool’s last march to the Champions League semi-finals. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
James Lawton

James Lawton

One result of Liverpool's astonishing progress in the Champions League is a sharp rise in the risk of hernia. This is now being run by those still willing to pass some final judgement on the style and the meaning of their coach Jurgen Klopp.

The hazard has come with the recent need to get on and off the fence rather too frequently.

For the moment, at least though, no-one is required to hedge on the reason why Liverpool go into today's semi-final draw in Switzerland along with the implacable Real Madrid, Roma and Bayern Munich.

Liverpool's first appearance in the semi-finals for 10 years - when they fell in a tumultuous collision with Chelsea - has an impressive list of ingredients.

It starts with the phenomenal, at times other-worldly, precision of Mo Salah and finishes with the underpinning of defence provided by Virgil van Dijk, who even at £75m is beginning to resemble an inspired raid on a charity shop.

Even so, it is impossible to look for too long beyond the vision-making capacity of Klopp.

He has been variously described as a dreamer higher on passion than football pragmatism, a believer in pressure football and damn the consequences, but then what is there to damn in the wake of the 5-1 aggregate annihilation of a Manchester City touted by some as the best team in Europe?

The question is certainly too cruel to put to that most celebrated of coaches, Pep Guardiola, at least before his latest trial of nerve tomorrow evening when City seek to confirm their Premier League title at Wembley against Spurs.

Dismay was etched ever deeper into Guardiola's expression when he was banished to the stands after protesting - with, no doubt, some reason, the decision to wipe out a goal by Leroy Sane - and it was not hard to understand why.

His team were not beaten by one errant decision by an official but, we should be very clear about this, a force of superior and most single-minded commitment.

Ultimate

That was Klopp's work. It was his dream of performance at the highest level of European action and it is Liverpool's once again after seven final appearances and five victories.

The ultimate question now for both Klopp, who came so agonisingly close five years ago when his Borussia Dortmund were beaten by Bayern in the last minutes of the Champions League final at Wembley, and Liverpool is whether the latest dream can hold?

It did for Rafa Benitez's team in 2005, when Steve Gerrard nursed his winner's medal into the Istanbul dawn and repeatedly shook his head as he recalled the comeback from 3-0 down against the Milan of Paolo Maldini and Andrea Pirlo - and not least the ringing celebrations coming down the corridor from the Italian dressing room at half-time.

It was an amazing result conjured out of initially botched tactics and playing resources - Benitez gambled on the volatile Harry Kewell before withdrawing him after 23 minutes and introduced the vital presence of Didi Hamman as late as the 46th minute - which did not compare to those at the disposal of rival Carlo Ancelotti. So, if Benitez had his dream, why not Klopp his with a team which has recently grown hugely before our eyes?

There was some irony in the fact that three years later Benitez failed in the semi-final against Chelsea with a team which now looks considerably stronger than the one which somehow conjured victory on that wild night in Turkey. Gerrard, Jamie Carragher, Xabi Alonso, Sami Hyypia and John Arne Riise survived from the final but on the night Didier Drogba's extraordinary power was so vital to Liverpool's expulsion Benitez was also able to call on the formidable Javier Mascherano, outstanding in the 2006 World Cup finals, Dutch terrier Dirk Kuyt, the rugged defence of Martin Skrtel and the goals of Fernando Torres.

How many of that team would Klopp like to have available over the next few weeks?

The suspicion must be that he would draw the line on his loyalty to the team which did so brilliantly against City only when considering the possibilities of a rejuvenated Gerrard and Maschereno and Alonso, but Torres for Salah? Not even, you have to say, with the Sphinx and the pyramids thrown in.

Paralysed

Already Klopp has made the dream and we can be sure that whoever Liverpool draw today they will be given reasons enough to believe they can travel again in the tank tracks with which they enveloped an eventually paralysed City.

Real Madrid and the now mystical self-belief of Cristiano Ronaldo is the challenge that anyone would prefer to leave to the last possible moment, Bayern, as usual, represent sophisticated strength, but for Liverpool it may be that Roma, after their stunning ejection of Barcelona, would carry the most threatening motivation.

When Messi's Barcelona were overcome there were, apparently, two overwhelming reactions. One was that such as Eden Dzeko, Daniele De Rossi and Aleksandar Kolarov had made Rome a city living in heaven, a conviction not entirely new, it is true, to some of its more religiously inclined citizens, and to confirm it the president of the club dived into one of the more historic fountains.

He now says that in repentance for breaking a city ordinance he will pay for the restoration of the old pile from his own pocket. The other Roman response was, 'bring on Liverpool'.

The 1984 penalty shoot-out defeat by Joe Fagan's Liverpool in the final before their own people in the Stadio Olimpico is a wound that has refused to heal.

It was Liverpool's fourth final and followed victories over Borussia Munchengladbach (1977), Club Brugge ('78) and Real Madrid ('81). It was Roma's only appearance in the final and it felt a bit like having your best Centurion and his men thrashed at the Coliseum.

On Merseyside, there will not, of course, be too much concern for the Roman angst. There the rapture has nothing to do with a lust for revenge. It is more about the potential meaning of the Klopp dream, which would give Liverpool their sixth supreme European triumph in eight final appearances, carry them ahead of Barcelona and Bayern Munich and behind only Real (12) and Milan (7).

"We trust in Klopp," goes the Anfield banner. Here, at the very least, there need be no fear of a hernia.

Champions League draw BT Sport, 12.0

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