Monday 11 December 2017

Graceland or wasteland awaits Liverpool

Klopp knows 'special' Champions League spot is the next step for ambitious Reds

Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino during a training session at Melwood. Photo: PA
Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino during a training session at Melwood. Photo: PA

Chris Bascombe

It is tempting to view nine months of Liverpool toil being defined by 90 minutes against Hoffenheim at Anfield tonight.

Delve deeper and you could argue everything Jurgen Klopp has built since his move to Liverpool in October 2015 has led to this crossroads directed towards the Graceland of Champions League or wasteland of the Europa League.

Club owner Fenway Sports Group will have similar thoughts, its seven-year reign so far yielding a solitary, humbling Champions League experience under Brendan Rodgers in 2014. There have been few games of such consequence hosted by Anfield since.

Little wonder Klopp's focus ahead of the second leg with Hoffenheim straddled the divide between recognising the importance of protecting a 2-1 first-leg lead and awakening the "legend of Anfield", while ensuring such pressure is inspiring rather than paralysing.

The manager admitted Liverpool could make a statement by returning to the elite. By accident or design, his description of the fixture as a "final" was logical.

Final

"I do not think in life it makes a lot of sense that if you have a big chance you think about the consequences if you lose it," said Klopp. "In finals, you go for it and try your best. Is it good to be in a final? Yes. Is it good to lose it? No. But the only possibility to lose it is to go to it.

"I will not think about this when I am at home in my bed and thinking about the game. It is not about what can happen, it is about what we can influence. That is what is important.

"The whole of last season we tried to qualify for the Champions League and we got fourth, so, if you like, this is part of last season and we want to close this case in the most positive way. Everybody knows it is pretty special.

"Usually people in England think you get fourth place and you are automatically through but this year it is different. The teams are stronger. We know that nothing is guaranteed but everything is possible, and that is enough.

"We are all excited about the possibility. It is a fantastic competition so far already for both teams really intense, so we have to deliver 100 per cent from the first day. We have to go immediately.

"I am not going to say to the players 'Oh think about what will happen if we don't do it'. There are enough people around who think like this. We had a positive performance in Hoffenheim and that's what we need again.

"I know it is a legend of Anfield on European nights, they are really special and we need these special nights. Everyone who wants this needs to do their job.

"I can guarantee the boys will fight for everything. It does not mean we will do it, but it means we will fight for it. I hope we will show the world what we are able to do."

Klopp has cautioned since the draw that Germans Hoffenheim were the toughest possible obstacle, a warning underlined in the hard-fought first-leg victory.

"We spoke after the game last week, yesterday, today and tomorrow about Hoffenheim," said Klopp.

"We want to learn from our mistakes and what we did over there. The big difference between the game last week and now is that everybody knows how strong the opponent is. I don't think anyone thinks 'Great, halfway through'.

"We only know we had a good result, not a perfect result, but a good one.

And, together with Anfield, we have to put it to bed."

The internal challenge has been equally troubling for Klopp in the past month, the injury to England's Adam Lallana and unavailability of Brazilian Philippe Coutinho unbalancing his midfield.

Coutinho, already absent with a sore back, was told to stay at home by the club in recent days due to illness - unrelated to the Barcelona saga. Emre Can also had a cold but returned to training on Tuesday.

"We have to handle injuries and the other things. If you suffer too much then you have to get back on track and that is what we did. I am fine with things so far," said Klopp. "We improved already from the Watford game to the Hoffenheim game to the Crystal Palace game and now we want to make the next step forward. We have to make the next step."

Comfortable

Hoffenheim's young coach Julian Nagelsmann looked comfortable and confident in revered surroundings. He revealed he had been to Anfield previously as a spectator, to see Rodgers' title-chasing side beat Newcastle three years ago.

"My impression was good. I was surprised to see how supporters behave. There wasn't extreme chanting from one end, it was from all four sides," he said.

"It was an intensive match in terms of the tactics. It was a nice experience. I was sitting in row two. Now I'm looking forward to sitting in row one.

"I'm not in awe. We are good enough not to have to hide here. We know this is a great club with a great history, but my feeling is excitement."

Klopp, meanwhile, has opened the door for Coutinho to return as soon as the playmaker declares himself available following Barcelona's failed attempts to sign him.

Asked if he was prepared to accept Coutinho back at the earliest opportunity, Klopp said: "Of course. Indeed. Absolutely. One hundred per cent."

By the time Coutinho returns, Klopp and Liverpool will hope they are sharing a stage with Barcelona on the field, having repelled their advances off it. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Liverpool v Hoffenheim Live BT Sport 2, 7.45

Telegraph.co.uk

Promoted Links

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Promoted Links

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport