Tuesday 16 October 2018

Jamie Carragher: Victory will make Liverpool's players believe they belong among elite

Klopp will join Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan and Rafa Benitez as an Anfield immortal if he succeeds. Photo credit: Nick Potts/PA Wire
Klopp will join Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan and Rafa Benitez as an Anfield immortal if he succeeds. Photo credit: Nick Potts/PA Wire

Jamie Carragher

I need only talk about the venue and the memories come pouring back.

Istanbul. Say the word at Anfield and that is enough. It is the same for Paris and Rome. To some, they conjure images of landmarks from Europe's greatest cities. For Liverpool supporters, these locations are inseparable from the pictures of Emlyn Hughes, Phil Thompson, Graeme Souness and Steven Gerrard lifting the European Cup.

I played 737 games for Liverpool. No matter where I go, supporters ask about one. My career - and that of each of my team-mates on that glorious evening in the Ataturk Stadium - is defined by victory over AC Milan in 2005.

Everything I aspired to be as a footballer was geared towards preparing me for that moment. Everything I aspired to after was about maintaining the standard that helped achieve that ambition.

The reputation of those of us who won that night is bonded for eternity.

Many years ago, I watched a documentary about the 1997 Lions tour in South Africa. Ian McGeechan spoke to his squad before the second Test, and the words he delivered resonate when I think of the Champions League final.

"There are days like this. Many players never have it," he said. "It is special. These are the days you never believe will come again. As you meet each other in the street in 30 years' time, there will just be a look. No words. Just a look. You'll know how special some days in your lives are."

My Liverpool team-mates from 2005 came to understand "the look", as McGeechan described it. We understand the uniqueness of the experience that ties us.

Those Liverpool players walking out in Kiev are not just on the threshold of legendary status - which is so valuable to the club and their careers - but forming that same connection.

Win, and they will have books written, documentaries produced and museum exhibitions curated. They will enjoy reunions celebrating their triumph, and the performances against Porto, Manchester City and Roma that took them there. Lives will change.

Lose, and the memories fade, as they did after I lost the final in Athens in 2007. We beat Barcelona and Chelsea that year. No one ever mentions it.

Whatever the result in Kiev, I can recall from my own experience what will be said tomorrow morning.

"This is just the start. We must build on this," is the message of the winners. "We can't forget what we achieved to get here. We will recover and try again," is the consoling wisdom for those defeated.

These will be words devoid of meaning. Forget the past. Ignore the consequences for the future. This is it. Here and now.

It is not about starting a new era for those players, or continuing a five-year plan. Win the European Cup and the world holds you in a higher regard. It cannot and will not get any better than the feeling of holding that beautiful trophy for the first time. You are elevated to global status.

My life, perceptions of my playing career and self-perception of my ability changed after Istanbul. Before 2005, I considered myself a good Premier League footballer, but my Champions League experience took it to another level.

I recall the build-up to the final, reading an interview with Paolo Maldini - already an AC Milan legend at that point - where he praised my defending.

I was taken aback. Until then, Maldini was a player I admired from afar as one of the greatest of our generation. It may sound strange, but I was shocked he even knew who I was.

Psychologically, it had a profound impact. When I walked side by side with the AC Milan players, I was not sure I belonged on that stage. Once we won it, I knew I did.

The nature of our victory led many to say it was a fluke, but in subsequent years key members of that side - Steven Gerrard, Xabi Alonso, Sami Hyypia, John Arne Riise and myself - played in another final, semi-final and quarter-final.

The game itself was freakish, but the standard of our performance to win was not. We became better players, and a much-improved team after 2005. The Liverpool side who lost to AC Milan in 2007 were superior to the one who won the competition, but we never experienced the emotion of Istanbul again.

The four years between 2005 and 2009 were my most consistent as a footballer, in part because of the belief I took from winning the Champions League, but also because having seen my reputation soar in Europe I was even more determined not to let it slip. I do not like the word 'arrogant' but when you hear managers talk about this in a football sense, this is what they mean - knowing you have played well under the greatest pressure and you will do so again. This is why players often tell you winning that first trophy breeds success.

There will be players in Jurgen Klopp's dressing room today going through a similar transformation. If you interviewed Andy Robertson, Jordan Henderson, Trent Alexander-Arnold or Dejan Lovren a year ago, and asked if they regarded themselves as peers of Real Madrid, what would the reaction be?

A humble response, I'd bet. Yes, they would have spoken of their ambitions and belief, but getting to the level of the two-time Champions League winners at the end of this season? They would have cautioned about expecting too much. Any other response would have been mocked.

Look where Liverpool have recruited some of their players: Hull, Sunderland, Southampton and Mainz. They must have doubted they would ever play in such a fixture. What will those Liverpool players say if they win this game?

They will want more of the same and demand more from themselves. My fear is they are facing a side well established on this pedestal, with the greatest understanding of how to win at all costs. Cristiano Ronaldo and Sergio Ramos are "beasts" of the modern game, in the best sense of the word.

I have confidence the Liverpool players will perform because they have already done so under the highest pressure. Player for player, this Liverpool team are better than the one that won in Istanbul. They have fewer weaknesses. Yet I maintain the true star of this team is the manager.

It is not only the reputation of players that is irreversibly enhanced by lifting the Champions League. This is also true of managers. Klopp will join Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan and Rafa Benitez as an Anfield immortal if he succeeds. To join the elite ranks of "super-coaches", he must add the European Cup to his CV.

If they win, everything changes. They will be talking about it forever. My hope is those players will need only state a single word to start the conversation - Kiev. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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