Sunday 22 September 2019

Paul Hayward: 'Jurgen Klopp's 'boys' head for glory in perfect harmony'

Smiles better: Jurgen Klopp and his coaching staff in relaxed mood during training in Melwood ahead of Saturday’s Champions League final against Tottenham. Photo: PA
Smiles better: Jurgen Klopp and his coaching staff in relaxed mood during training in Melwood ahead of Saturday’s Champions League final against Tottenham. Photo: PA

Paul Hayward

On a drive around Liverpool you see houses festooned with banners, flags and streamers: a Champions League version of Christmas, with space on the roof for the trophy the red half of Merseyside has every right to imagine in their team's possession this weekend.

Liverpool's fans were never slow to parade their allegiance, before, during or after big games. The bedecking of houses around Anfield and the Melwood training ground, however, has a different feel this time. This is not the ritual optimism of a nearly club. This is no underdog bark. Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool are a ruthless winning machine. The players are at ease with each other, the staff are all cheerful and bright-eyed and the whole operation rolls into Madrid knowing that not much is beyond the scope of this formidable side.

Manchester City were, in the Premier League, but only because the champions amassed 98 points to Liverpool's 97. At the same time Spurs piled up 13 defeats to Liverpool's single loss: one of the reasons Klopp's men are warm favourites to win a sixth European Cup on Saturday night.

Tottenham's comeback against Ajax in Amsterdam - heroic though it was - was not the greatest fightback of a seismic week. Liverpool 4 Barcelona 0 will take a lot of shifting as the best Lazarus impersonation of the modern age.

We raced on from that crazy night, to other dramas, other showdowns. This sporting life moves so fast that "last night" is already dead by the time it reaches the shops. Our culture says: "Yeah, that was good, what's next?"

In the Champions League, Ajax 2 Spurs 3 was next, and it set up an all-English fight for the title of comeback kings.

The blanket thrown over Lionel Messi and the reversal of a 3-0 first-leg deficit required gusts of emotion. Storms of passion drove Klopp's team on.

The noise made your ribs shake. The great collective push of team and Anfield crowd quashed even Messi's talent for escapology. But the crowd's support was not, I would argue, the true measure of this team. The real gauge is their ruthlessness, their togetherness and confidence. These qualities have not always shone from the "false dawn" Liverpool teams who came to challenge but then fell away.

At the club's Champions League media day, you could see why Liverpool exude a different air these days. No longer is it Anfield plus tradition against the world. Now, the crowd, the team and the structure all work in synch.

Klopp said earlier this season: "We are maybe the most emotional club in world football." But he said it knowing "emotion" was now only one of Liverpool's assets, not the main animus.

At Melwood yesterday, Klopp said "at the moment, it's pure excitement", but then talked with more force about the seminal 4-0 victory over Barcelona, which he calls "the best game I ever saw".

Here's why: "Circumstances, missing players, 3-0 down, stuff like that. But the boys gave me from the first minute the feeling of being completely ready for it. Not 4-0 - you cannot plan that. But 3-0, or 2-0 - it still would have been a fantastic achievement, and everyone would have said 'good response'."

Liverpool performed at such a high level that night Klopp felt himself relax. This was the nirvana all his nervous energy drives him towards.

Except, this time the football was taking him there without any need for histrionics.

"It's not too long ago I was sprinting on the pitch and jumping on my goalkeeper," he says, referring to his £8,000 fine for invading the field in a Merseyside derby. "It was an expensive run and I decided I would not do that again."

The subsequent Premier League title race denouement brought only the most honourable near-miss in top-flight history.

Heading to Madrid, his "mentality giants" still lack a reward for their brilliance. They may lack it still at the weekend if the spirit moves Spurs to be inspired again.

They have it in them. But Klopp's men exude the air of people who will force it to go their way.

Of Saturday's final, Klopp says: "The game was like the sun. And it (the sun) took us in that direction. And we'll be really happy when we're there and can do everything to win it."


Last year's defeat in Kiev gives Liverpool another advantage over opponents who may see their own presence more as an adventure than a mission.

"It had a big influence on us," Klopp says of Real Madrid's win.

"We stand in the queue at the airport in Kiev on the way home, all in tracksuits, hats pulled down, everyone very frustrated about the situation, not allowed to be angry about this or that.

"There were a lot of different emotions in our heads. But the plan was: we come again, we will be there again. It was the kick-start for the development of this team - 100 per cent."

"The boys," as he so often calls them, will be followed to Spain by an army of fans who can still never quite trust a glint of gold. Liverpool supporters wear anti-disappointment armour.

Yet bookmaking logic and intuition say Klopp's team should reverse the cosmic let-down of not winning the league with 97 points.

Very rarely do you come across a team with zero self-doubt. But this is the Liverpool side Spurs will face.

The Left Wing: Ireland's fullback dilemma, World Cup bonding and the squad standby list

Also in Sport