Thursday 16 August 2018

Jurgen Klopp can join pantheon of great managers at Liverpool

With Salah on song, inspirational boss is proving his worth as his vision for Reds comes to life

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp
James Lawton

James Lawton

It is getting on for 50 years since Bill Shankly, the founder of the great tradition, clambered on to his small desk in his poky office beneath the old grandstand, stretched out his arms and declared that one day Liverpool would go off like a bomb in the sky.

Maybe it should be reported that he was wearing a slightly manic expression at the time. But then many superior prophets do.

One thing is certain. Liverpool, under his successor Jurgen Klopp, are beginning to make what looked like a half-crazed fantasy resemble more a laser beam into the future.

Klopp, of course, has still to make big strides to match the men who so brilliantly nurtured the Shankly legacy, Bob Paisley with his three European Cups and Joe Fagan's seamless progress to another title victory against Roma in Rome, of all places.

Rafa Benitez conjured another against Milan - and almost all logic - in a moonscape stadium outside Istanbul 21 years later.

Kenny Dalglish, who knows, may also have known such a triumph had he not, after winning three league titles and two FA Cups, been drained by the emotions of the Hillsborough tragedy.

But can a bomb in the sky, a Shanklyesque vision of a time when a team reaches a point of competitive perfection, of effort and unity be crowned by the emerging genius of Mohamed Salah?

Whatever happens in the Stadio Olimpico next Wednesday night when Liverpool defend the 5-2 Champions League semi-final lead, which for 80 minutes represented all that you would want from any football team, is now in the possession of Klopp.

Liverpool's manager Jurgen Klopp embraces Mohamed Salah. Photo: Getty Images
Liverpool's manager Jurgen Klopp embraces Mohamed Salah. Photo: Getty Images

He was pained by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's devastating injury, the late goals gleaned by a previously eviscerated Roma, but he knew it well enough.

No, he wasn't flying, he admitted, the conspiracy of late events prevented that, but no-one needed to tell him that his team had hit a trajectory of will and accomplishment which they will never want to betray.

That has always been the keenest of Klopp's ambitions. It raged through his time at Borussia Dortmund and created an emotion shared with his dressing-room that was as tangible as the smoke which used to pour out of the industrial mills of the Ruhr Valley.

Now it is just as visible in another gritty place where life has not been over generous with its material riches and for which football will always be more than a mere game, still less an amusement.

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It is a badge of identity and these last few weeks it has been the glorious one which Shankly first imported from his Ayrshire mining village.

Klopp's bond with his players - so tight and inspiring as his Roma rival Eusebio Di Francesco stood on the touchline like some stricken spectator of an unimaginable disaster - seems to strengthen by the day.

For the Manchester City of Pep Guardiola, it became progressively ungovernable in the quarter-finals and we can be sure that Roma will draw only limited comfort from their late recovery - and their extraordinary ejection of Barcelona after suffering a three-goal deficit at the Camp Nou in the previous round.

Barca were a huge scalp, no doubt, but at no point in their first-leg 4-1 win did they begin to look like the team of sublime creativity shaped by Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta.

Rather, they were beneficiaries of, strange as it is to say, kamikaze Italian defence.

Liverpool also drew some benefit from this unlikely trait in one of the leading teams of Serie A but the thrust of their effort was on another, higher plain.

Supremely it flowed from the fusion of Klopp's power to embrace and inspire his players - and the fact that one of them, Salah, is flourishing like some blazingly exotic plant in a hothouse especially built for its purpose.

Here, surely, is a superb example of football man-management at its warmest and most intuitive.

The great Jose Mourinho expressed modest appreciation for the Egyptian's tricky skills, then packed him off to Fiorentina and Roma on loan. Mourinho also moved on Salah's only serious rival for Player of the Year, City's Kevin de Bruyne, and if the 'Special One' ever has nightmares about such profligacy he, understandably, keeps them to himself.

Salah did well enough in Italy, scoring 35 goals in 81 games. He impressed, with his speed and his nifty touch, but it has been under Klopp that he has announced the full, staggering scale of his talent, the acuteness of it, the certainty of both his intention and exquisite execution.

This announces a perfect rapport with his coach, his team-mates and his environment and it is an achievement which speaks a torrent of words for his character.

In the world of football, with its huge and wealth-strewn pursuit of the greatest players, the eulogy of the moment will surely stand against any future developments launched from the power centres of the game.

Achieve

What Salah has been able to achieve under Klopp has carried him on to the highway of football history and, at the age of 25, he has found an equilibrium which is as astonishing as it is impressive.

When Roma staged their late, improbable rally, Salah's face was a haunting picture of anxiety. He was secure in his personal glory, but his expression of concern said almost as much about his commitment to the team - a mythic concept in so much of football, after all - as anything he had done on the field.

Salah, no doubt, is Klopp's greatest glory - and weapon - at the Stadio Olimpico, but this is at no cost to the understanding that there are so many other examples of the coach's success in drawing the best from his players.

Roberto Firmino was a phenomenal force of energy and football skill and tactical flair against Roma. James Milner has found again all the passion that once made him a boy prodigy of the English game.

Throughout the team there is a surging belief that there should be no boundaries on their ambition or belief in themselves. It is a conviction which will, we must suspect on all the heart-warming evidence, survive its passing trial in the 'Eternal City'.

Many centuries ago Rome turned back another able and ambitious North African, Hannibal.

However, Mo Salah and the Klopp legion might well provide a very different story.

Irish Independent

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