Forget Liverpool's embarrassing 2014 Champions League campaign, this time they can compete
The last Spanish side to play Liverpool in the Champions League was pampered more than intimidated.
It was in 2014 when Real Madrid came to Anfield and for the first time in Liverpool history it felt like the Merseyside club was pleased to be sharing the same pitch with illustrious company rather than carrying realistic aspirations of beating them. It would have been no surprise had some of the players requested autographs rather than swap shirts at full-time.
The return fixture in the Bernabeu was worse, former Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers opting to play a second string team having deciding even his strongest XI had no chance. It summed up a campaign that at its best was embarrassing and at worst shameful.
In mitigation, it was not a good time for the club. Luis Suarez had just left to be replaced by a circus act in Mario Balotelli, Daniel Sturridge was injured, Raheem Sterling and Steven Gerrard’s immediate futures were unresolved, and seven new recruits were adjusting to their new environment or discovering the step up beyond them, the suspicion lingering the manager had signed players whose qualities he was unsure of.
The Champions League is no place for a club in transition.
The clues as to why it went so badly do not demand investigation. Eight of the starting eleven that failed to defeat Basel the last time Liverpool played a Champions League group game have left, or in the case of Gerrard retired.
It was a Liverpool team in which Rickie Lambert led the line, Jose Enrique was somehow in the side, Philippe Coutinho was no more than a late substitute and Adam Lallana and Emre Can were unused. There was trepidation going into the tournament that proved sadly justified as they went out before Christmas.
It was Liverpool in Europe, but not as we romanticise it.
Regardless of the outcome over their next six European fixture we can make at least one prediction with certainty: the club and the team making its Champions League return on Wedensday night will be utterly different from that which undermined Liverpool’s status in the competition three years ago.
There will be respect for whoever comes to Anfield during this campaign, but no deference.
Jurgen Klopp has already offered an insight into what is possible. He immediately restored the club’s prestige on the continent during his first season, even if the identity of their opponents on Wednesday night brings another harrowing memory, Liverpool beaten by Sevilla in the Europa League final 15 months ago.
After that game, Klopp made a promise. “We will come back stronger,” he said.
“We will use the time we do not have in Europe and train and we will make other finals.”
Klopp delivered this message more passionately in Liverpool’s team hotel in Switzerland hours after the final whistle, telling his players he would sign reinforcements rather than replacements to bring success.
As some Liverpool supporters argued another clear-out was needed, plenty still expressing frustration their manager is reluctant to buy too many, Klopp has proven true to his development ethos.
In contrast to the staff turnover since the Champions League failure, it is telling that of the side beaten 3-1 by Sevilla in the Europa League Final only Kolo Toure has gone. The eleven that started are, of course, elevated by the presence of Sadio Mane or – should he recover from illness – Mohamed Salah, but Liverpool’s vast improvement domestically has validated Klopp’s work.
If Champions League failure in 2014 raised questions about the personnel – including the manager at the time – the Europa League final loss was a platform.
Although it never felt that way in May 2016, Liverpool’s temporary Euro absence has done more good than harm. Liverpool’s squad just about had the depth required to secure 4th place in the 2016/17 Premier League, but would have been stretched had European commitments forced Klopp to rotate as much a year ago as he will now.
The Europa League wins en route to the final in 2016 are a hint of what a vibrant Kop and energetic Klopp can bring to the more prestigious competition.
Sevilla’s arrival on Merseyside not only offers the chance for Liverpool to show how much they have evolved during their year of European exile, but to prove how for the first time since 2009 they are capable of more than participating in the Champions League.
This time they can compete in it.