Comment: Echoes of 2005 as Jurgen Klopp thrives in Liverpool underdog tag
It feels like we’ve been here before with Liverpool in Europe. Not since the club was paired with Juventus in the 2005 Champions League have they been so unfancied going into a quarter-final and yet surpassed pre-match expectations.
As Jurgen Klopp identified after last night’s 1-1 draw with Borussia Dortmund, some of the more optimistic predictions were geared towards ensuring the tie was still alive when the sides meet next week.
“If we can just keep it down to a one-goal deficit it’ll be alright,” was a recurring observation from the red-scarved contingent in Dortmund on Wednesday evening, especially given what happened to Spurs in the round of 32.
To be fair, Klopp seemed to revel in the underdog status as much as anyone and may have used it to his advantage on his homecoming. The suggestion Liverpool had to ‘climb the highest mountain’ to get past his ex-club certainly did not invite the grandest of expectations of what must rank – tactically at least – as the most accomplished performance of his fledgling Anfield reign.
Unfancied status clearly suits Liverpool, and the echoes of the 2004-05 European campaign will start to resonate further should Klopp be celebrating on home turf in a week’s time.
As with Rafa Benitez, Klopp is getting the most of the personnel he inherited. Benitez was at least able to add the class of Xabi Alonso and Luis Garcia’s European wizardry to Gerard Houllier’s side – selecting players he actually bought is a luxury to look forward to next season for the current coach - and Klopp can also consider himself unlucky to be the first Liverpool manager in 17 years to walk into a dressing room and not have Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher staring back and pledging unconditional loyalty to him.
Nevertheless, this season has played out rather like Benitez’s debut campaign. Inauspicious and inconsistent Premier League form has been salvaged by the cups - and the only way Liverpool can enter the Champions League next year is by winning in Europe. How Liverpool's rivals must now be dreading that possibility.
As with Benitez, Klopp managed to offer a glimpse of the improvements that might follow by leading his side to a League Cup Final. Liverpool were beaten by Chelsea in 2005, Manchester City in 2016. It is always reassuring when you can see what a coach is trying to do with his team, and how much better they will be when he has better players to execute the vision.
The 2005 European campaign is remembered most for the semi-final win over Jose Mourinho and miracle of Istanbul, but it was the quarter-final draw in Turin that was the moment doubt became belief for Benitez’s side. Nobody believed Liverpool could progress. It is too often overlooked in the story of that season. Juventus were actually a more formidable opponent than AC Milan that year. They would win Serie A six weeks later, possessing a front three of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Alessandro Del Piero and Pavel Nedved.
In the first leg at Anfield, Liverpool had Igor Biscan deputising for the injured Alonso, Scott Carson was the goalkeeper, and so short of firepower were they the lesser spotted and barely seen again French youngster Anthony Le Tallec was upfront with Milan Baros.
Despite a 2-1 win, the Italians were supremely confident they would secure the 1-0 victory they needed in Turin, especially as Gerrard would miss the return. The midfield quartet of Antonio Nunez, Igor Biscan, Xabi Alonso and John Arne Riise did not make the Italian champions-in-waiting shudder. For Divock Origi in Dortmund last night, read Baros against Juventus in 2005, a scurrying menace ensuring there was constant anxiety in the opposition defence.
When Benitez walked into Merseyside in the summer of 2004, Anfield was sleeping. By the quarter-final stage in Europe the beast had awoken and the combination of a manager who knew how to get results on the continent and a fanbase embracing such swift and unlikely progress led to some of the most memorable nights the stadium has ever hosted.
Klopp is using the Europa League to tread a similar path. The atmosphere before the game at Signal Iduna Park last night lived up to expectations, although it was to Liverpool’s credit they kept the home fans reasonably sedate the more the game progressed.
But with the greatest of respect to Dortmund, their players will understand why Klopp was lured to Anfield in the moments when the teams line-up before kick-off next Thursday. It has become too infrequent at Liverpool home games, but the inferiority complex many Liverpool fans felt when comparing Signal Iduna Park to Anfield as its most raucous is not justified. Not at all.
Liverpool are one win away from a European semi-final again under a manager who – thus far – has found more in his players against the toughest of opponents.
In 2005, it was not just Liverpool European success that was thrilling under a new manager, it was the promise of what might come. “If he can go this far with this team, how much better will it be when he has all his own players?” was the euphoric question after each notable result.
Klopp is provoking the same feelings.