Tuesday 23 July 2019

Roy Curtis: 'Nobody would have circled it in the summer, but Saturday could be defining game of Liverpool's season'

Klopp’s Liverpool are four points clear of Manchester City at the top of the table (Richard Sellers/PA)
Klopp’s Liverpool are four points clear of Manchester City at the top of the table (Richard Sellers/PA)

Roy Curtis

JURGEN Klopp, with that supernova smile, the optimistic cast to his face, his innate recognition of Anfield as a garden for the people, can resemble a bearded, bespectacled endorphin.

The euphoric highs his personality has released over Merseyside have been just as critical to Liverpool’s evolutionary leap as Mo Salah’s razor edge, or Virgil van Dijk’s calm, bomb-disposal-unit defusing of crisis.

How his city – and it his town as surely as if he had planted his standard in Stanley Park on that October day in 2015 he first breezed into Melwood – requires those qualities now.

The brotherhood of Klopp has arrived at a defining moment in their story.

If defeat to Manchester City was hardly fatal – they remain four points clear of the field, for heaven’s sake – still, it could be recalled as the moment they trod on the third rail.

Klopp’s greatness, his capacity to counter witchcraft, will be measured by his ability to prevent Leroy Sane’s goal electrocuting and destroying Liverpool’s title pursuit.

The season’s narrative will be determined by how a team that had defied gravity until this past midweek responds to Thursday’s jolting loss of weightlessness.

If Liverpool are unnerved by City’s breath on their shoulder, suddenly spooked by the enormity of the 29-year chasm they are seeking to bridge, then they are doomed.

If there has been no evidence up to now that they have the found the Kop’s longing for liberation claustrophobic, it will converge on them now like a junkyard car crusher.

Steven Gerrard’s slip, the Benitez "facts" meltdown, the near three decade exile from their seat at the top table, these will become the poltergeists in the room.

Unless Klopp, with that sunny disposition and hypercompetitive nature, can instantly exorcise the demons.

This is not a test of his tactical skills, for he has proven time after time how he is expert at deploying his troops in a manner that sets a ball fizzing at thrilling, dizzying speed.

Rather, this is an exam of the German’s capacity to kill any wildfire of panic before the first spark.

An away fixture at artisan, lower caste Brighton was hardly among those Klopp circled at the start of the season.

Yet, next Saturday’s trip to the south coast feels momentous, potentially Liverpool’s most critical domestic fixture in more than the 26 years Salah has walked the earth.

Bring the guillotine down on Chris Hughton’s team and normalcy will be restored: The loss to City will fade into the mist; Pep Guardiola will no longer - or, at least, not so much - inhabit their nightmares, a Grim Reaper’s sickle and hood about his person.

Storm Etihad will ebb. Impending home games against Crystal Palace and Leicester will further soothe spirits.

But, drop points at Brighton and the fasten seat belt signs will illuminate, the oxygen masks will drop and Liverpool will be ordered to assume the emergency crouch position.

In that new-found and terrifying turbulence, the record-breaking 19-game points haul, the nine-straight wins that preceded last Thursday, their position atop the table, will mean little.

Any slip-up at the AmEx will leave Klopp and his team looking as powerless as leaves sucked into the Jetstream.

In that doomsday scenario, Liverpool will be reduced to startled stockbrokers on that October day in 1929, helpless as the Wall Street Crash of their ambitions unspools.

When that wildfire of panic is fed the oxygen of further doubt it can quickly transform into unstoppable, destructive hysteria.

Look at how City, feted as the preeminent team of the Premier League era only a month ago, appeared helpless as a tiny glitch quickly morphed into a December tailspin.

Guardiola’s Invincibles fell three times in four games; in their lost imperium a commanding five point advantage morphed almost overnight into a seven point deficit.

Remember how Limerick were cruising to All-Ireland glory last August only for Galway to come alive at the death and suddenly as John Kiely’s side stuttered, 45-years of Shannonside yearning felt like the most terrible weight.

Limerick just about held on and, at last, the green tribe knew unbridled ecstasy.

Here, with Sergio Aguero cast in the Joe Canning role, is Klopp’s greatest test as a leader of men.

In so many ways he has overachieved.

Liverpool look down from the league summit in spite of a midfield that relies on blue-collar hustle, one lacking the superior creativity of craftsmen born into their trade.

Klopp has compensated by creating an upbeat vibe, a sense of fraternal togetherness, a powerful vision of Liverpool as a movement, a union of battlefield and terrace.

Here is a coach who has made a city feel something.

The league table, the one that has them four points ahead of City, six clear of Spurs, still 16 to the good of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s resurgent United, insists they are in a good place.

But a tabulated set of numbers, an emotionless spreadsheet, cannot shine a light on the heart-scald of Thursday’s loss.

It says nothing about how Sadio Mane’s dagger was an agonising 11.7mm from severing City’s jugular vein.  It cannot measure the huge shift in momentum.

With 17 games to go, Liverpool remain favourites to reach the finishing line first. But in this suffocating environment, the margins for error are microscopic.

And so, over the next week, Klopp will smile like a supernova, set his features in the most optimistic cast and invest all of himself in convincing his team they are fine.

But, the truth is, until he walks off the field in Brighton next Saturday, Klopp won’t have a clue whether or not that is true.

Only then, in that season-defining cameo, will the human endorphin discover if his power to release a river of euphoria endures.

Online Editors

The Throw-In: D-Day looms in Castlebar, Jim Gavin’s plan for Diarmuid Connolly and the future of the Super 8s

In association with Bord Gáis Energy

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport