WATCH: Uefa Champions League semi-finals - 'Football romantic' Klopp has reconnected Liverpool with their European past
It was a fitting time to recall October 2015. On Saturday, Danny Ings scored his first goal since a close-range finish against Everton two-and-a-half years ago. That, however, is not why that particular Merseyside derby is remembered. It was Brendan Rodgers’ last game. He was sacked later that day with Liverpool languishing in 10th.
Then, Trent Alexander-Arnold was a 16 year old in the youth team at Anfield. Andrew Robertson was playing Championship football for Hull City. Loris Karius in the Mainz goal, struggling to keep clean sheets and largely unknown in England. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was on the Arsenal bench, seeming another case of stunted development under Arsene Wenger. Roberto Firmino seemed a £29 million (Dh149m) conundrum, delivering neither a goal nor an assist thus far for Liverpool amid questions what his best position was. Mohamed Salah had been loaned out by Chelsea for a second successive season.
It is an understatement to say much has changed in two and a half years under Jurgen Klopp or to assert that the German has been responsible for much of it. He breezed into Anfield, vowing to turn “doubters into believers” and, with the significant caveat that he is yet to win silverware, has done that. Klopp has been a transformative figure, rebranding Liverpool as the fastest team around, marrying speed with skill, rawness with cleverness. Arguably no one else acquires such devastating momentum in attack. Few specialise in blowing opponents away with flurries of goals. Liverpool endured a struggle to score in Rodgers’ last 15 months. Now Klopp’s front three have 83 goals between them. His side are the Uefa Champions League’s top scorers.
He can seem a force of nature, prospering in part because of a supersized personality, marrying original tactical thinking with zaniness and quotability, embracing Liverpool while reinventing them. Leftfield thought was required to assemble this collection of unusual suspects, belief – a staple of Klopp’s management – needed to eschew some more obvious options, a prowess on the Melwood training pitches essential to conjure the best form of their careers from many.
Rewind to Klopp’s unveiling and he declared: “I am a football romantic.” However they do it, the best Liverpool managers tend to blend romanticism with pragmatism. The club’s history, and Rome’s part in it, appeals to the romantic. A reunion with Roma, their opponents in the 1984 European Cup final and Tuesday’s Champions League semi-final, illustrates the improbable career paths of Liverpool players long before Klopp’s arrival.
Ian Rush, the last Liverpool player before Salah to reach 40 goals in a season, came from Chester, Bruce Grobbelaar, the goalkeeper whose wobbly-kneed antics put off Roma in the penalty shoot-out, was a former Zimbabwean soldier signed from Crewe Alexandra, Phil Neal, the only Brit to win the European Cup four times and a right-back who scored in two finals at Rome’s Stadio Olimpico, was bought from Northampton Town. The other full-back then was Alan Kennedy. He had endured a difficult debut in which his manager, Bob Paisley, looked at him sadly and said: “I think they shot the wrong Kennedy.” He proved the right Kennedy when he provided the decisive shot of two European Cup finals, galloping into space to score from an acute angle against Real Madrid in 1981 and converting Liverpool’s last penalty three years later.
Liverpool’s fanbase can be measured in the millions these days. Their trophy cabinet has needed to be big. Yet there always tended to be something unlikely about their continental triumphs long before Steven Gerrard inspired an improbable comeback in Istanbul. An injury-hit side faced Bayern Munich in the 1981 semi-finals. Kenny Dalglish soon limped off. Enter a substitute who was then substituted, Howard Gayle, who nevertheless ran Bayern ragged on just his second game for the club.
Now their hopes rest with a German. Klopp lives in a world of global talent searches and colossal fees, but he and his eclectic cast have reconnected Liverpool with their European past, with the endearing improbability and sense of endless possibility. Once again, these romantics can believe.
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