Liverpool and Jurgen Klopp hoping it is third time lucky in bid to reach the Uefa Champions League group stages
The Merseyside team have a 2-1 advantage over Hoffenheim going into the second leg of play-off, with interesting possible consequences if they are successful.
Liverpool are 90 minutes away. Again. They have been one game from the Uefa Champions League twice before in Jurgen Klopp’s reign.
A Champions League finalist has seen his side fall at the final hurdle twice before; once because of their shortcomings, once because of events elsewhere.
Rewind to May 2016 and victory in the Europa League final would have secured qualification. They led against Sevilla. They lost.
Go back to May 2017 and Liverpool knew victory against Middlesbrough, coupled with a defeat for Manchester City against Watford, would have earned them third place. City duly scored five goals and Liverpool came fourth.
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So here they are again, but with a difference. Their position has never been stronger. They beat Hoffenheim 2-1 last week. Concede fewer than two goals and the five-times champions of Europe will be back where many at Anfield feel where they belong.
“Liverpool needs to be there consistently,” said Klopp in May. Getting there at all would be a start.
Getting through the group stages, for the first time since 2008-09, would help, too.
An item from the Anfield songbook includes the lyric “here we go gathering cups in May”.
Yet seasons are not always defined at the end. The worst-case scenario is they can be doomed from the start and if the perennially upbeat Klopp has rebounded from losing two finals, it is harder to sustain air of optimism and pretence of progress if Liverpool are back in the Europa League. This will shape perceptions as well as a campaign.
The significance of Wednesday's rematch with Hoffenheim was apparent when Klopp made five changes against Crystal Palace on Saturday, even though Liverpool had made a false start in the league by drawing at Watford.
But that was not a do-or-die game. This is. The consequences could be considerable. Might a setback prompt another bid from Barcelona for Philippe Coutinho if the Brazilian’s only chance of Champions League football this season were to be at Camp Nou?
Might a win hasten Virgil van Dijk on the path to Anfield? Southampton have been adamant the defender is going nowhere, but the Coutinho saga is not the only impasse which, one way or another, must be resolved by the end of August.
While a back injury will sideline the Brazilian, the Dutch defender assumes a particular pertinence. The last centre-back Liverpool signed from Southampton, Dejan Lovren, has twice threatened to cost them a berth in the Champions League.
He flirted with disaster against Middlesbrough. He conceded a penalty in Germany last week, though Simon Mignolet rescued him by saving Andrej Kramaric’s spot kick. Klopp may ponder picking Ragnar Klavan, who was solid against Palace.
At their best, Liverpool can be scintillating. All they need is solidity. They have never lost a European home game against German opposition.
Their most recent visitors, Klopp’s former club Borussia Dortmund, were the only side to score more than once and still lost 4-3.
“A 2-0 is the rough plan, and a 3-0 would be even nicer,” said Hoffenheim manager Julian Nagelsmann, downplaying the difficulty of his side’s task, though even one of the German giants might be intimidated by it.
Instead, this is Hoffenheim’s first European tie, perhaps a solitary shot at reaching the Champions League.
It explains why Nagelsmann made six changes at the weekend. This may be a one-off for them. Liverpool hope it is the start of things to come.
Go back to May and Klopp declared: “The step is for us to be around the best teams in the world because we are at one of the best clubs in the world.”
Their history suggests as much, but proof can only be provided on the pitch.
Updated: August 22, 2017 02:41 PM