Why Jurgen Klopp’s men no longer have the psychological freedom they once had
Shortly after their Champions League quarter-final against FC Porto had kicked off, many Liverpool staff in the Dragao were already distracted by events at Manchester City, giddily informing each other of updates. You couldn’t but be distracted because of how tumultuous that match against Tottenham was, but its after-effects have actually altered the entire dynamic around Liverpool’s semi-final.
We know, of course, that Barcelona always saw the Champions League as their absolute priority this season. But should that now be how Liverpool look at it too?
The issue is that, when an assured Jurgen Klopp was breezily talking in Porto about playing for both major trophies, it was when there was still much more of the league to play for. There was also the sudden possibility that City would be derailed by the elimination to Spurs, and potentially drop more points in the league. That hasn’t happened in the slightest. City have been steeled and went on to win what were their three most difficult remaining fixtures of the five after Tottenham, to the point it is likely Liverpool now have the most difficult match left at Rafa Benitez’s Newcastle United.
The glorious promise of their season now actually makes it all rather precarious. Next week could yet see them qualify for the Champions League final and then finally win the Premier League in the space of five days at Anfield. Or, it could see them very quickly end up with nothing, with the title race now having become more loaded against them. They are running out of opportunities for City to make the mistake they need.
So, does that mean Liverpool load more towards the Champions League?
That, as Klopp would fairly argue, is itself something of a misplaced question. He and his team have of course been giving everything required when they’ve played in Europe, but there has been a crucial difference to the tone and feel of their Champions League matches.
The emphasis on – and pressure from – the title race has meant there was more psychological freedom to their European matches; that they were mere nights out rather than great big days.
That may now change, even subconsciously, due to the sudden threat of ending such a sensational season with nothing.
They may also feel some of the tension that Barcelona have in their European ties.
While the Catalans have already won the league, and will likely win the Spanish cup, it will feel like nothing if they again fail to win the Champions League. That is because everything about their season has been geared towards finally reclaiming Europe’s great prize.
Much of this is only deepened by the lilts and turns of their own long great histories, as well as their relationships with the major trophies. These are two clubs with more successful pasts – and psychological complexes – than the vast majority of Europe.
Only deepening this is that both are going for their sixth Champions League, having won their respective five in similar patterns.
Both had four wins in one great era where they represented the pinnacle of the game – Barca 2005-2015, Liverpool 1976-1984 – and then one victory that was unique, both for its timing and for its emotional impact.
Barca’s 1992 win was their first, after so many frustrations and painful failures.
Liverpool’s 2005 win was their first in 21 years, and their first elite trophy in 15 as the club were at that point striving and struggling for top-level relevance.
It is now their struggles to win the league that has – all of a sudden – heightened the importance of this fixture for Klopp’s side.
It is meanwhile Barcelona’s unprecedented domination of their own league that has – over time – heightened the importance of the Champions League for them.
The Catalans see this as the trophy they should have dominated, only for Real Madrid to once more make it their own.
Liverpool see themselves as their country’s greatest club in the continent’s greatest competition, more so because they have been surpassed domestically.
The fixture itself feels fittingly well balanced from a football perspective. Liverpool might just about have the more balanced team, but Barcelona have the one player that can unbalance any match, the great anomaly: Leo Messi.
It is by now well known the Argentine is utterly determined to win the Champions League this season, and make up for what he feels is an underwhelming record.
Liverpool know they will have to be fully alert to him. He is the dynamic the whole game revolves around and could yet dictate so much about Liverpool’s season.
Independent News Service