When he arrived at Liverpool in October 2015, Jurgen Klopp promised to end their wait for major trophies.
“If we sit here in four years, I think we will win one title,” he said. “If not, then maybe the next one will be in Switzerland.”
The road since then has not been straightforward for the manager and his first trophy at Anfield has still to arrive. Yet, even if it does not come in Kiev next month, the signs are that Klopp is taking Liverpool back towards football’s top table.
If they could defend, Liverpool would be unstoppable. Even with their shaky back line, they have still managed to move to within one match of becoming European champions, though it got rather hairy at the end.
Make no mistake, winning the Champions League would complete a remarkable transformation for Klopp, who went into the campaign under pressure. They went out of both domestic cup competitions after disappointing home defeats last season, and only just scraped into the top four on the final day. A title challenge has never looked likely this season, largely thanks to Manchester City’s astonishing form, while the FA Cup and Carabao Cup runs again ended almost before they had started.
Yet, there were signs that something good was brewing even before their Champions League run really got going. The flurry of goals in the group stages, which included two 7-0 wins, offered one reason to get excited, but it was a domestic victory that really showed Liverpool could compete with the best. Their 4-3 Premier League win over Manchester City in January was as deserved as it was exhilarating. It ended City’s hopes of going through the league season undefeated, and showed just what Liverpool, and their fabulous attack, could achieve. It probably also gave them to confidence to attack City when the sides met in the Champions League quarter-finals last month. Having won that tie, it certainly gave them the belief to produce the attacking masterclass that earned a 5-2 first-leg lead against Roma.
The next step for Klopp, if Liverpool are to become truly great, is to rebuild the sense that they belong at the top level. They arrived in Rome surrounded by doubt, with questions around their ability to complete the job. They left, having survived a few defensive wobbles, with a first Champions League final place since 2007. It was a night when Liverpool took a large step towards rejoining Europe’s greats. Everyone connected with the club can feel immense pride at that achievement.
Yet, the best news of all was that the talk on the night was all about the football. Events outside Anfield before last week’s first leg had cast a shadow over this semi-final; the horrific attack that left supporter Sean Cox, from Co Meath, in a coma had shocked and appalled anyone with the slightest hint of compassion.
As a club, Roma’s response to those events was well-judged; it was a fine gesture for the players to wear shirts bearing the message ‘Forza Sean’ during training on Tuesday, while Eusebio Di Francesco, the coach, spoke movingly about Cox before the game. As Francesco Totti, surely the club’s greatest player, put it: “The world is watching.” Thanks in part to the huge security operation designed to protect Liverpool’s 5,000 supporters, the hours leading up to kick-off passed without a repeat of last week’s awful scenes. The great noise inside the stadium was intimidating, but as good-natured as could be expected for a match of this magnitude.
That noise rose a notch as soon as the match began; Edin Dzeko’s sight of goal in the opening minute brought a roar that bordered on the deafening. So too were the whistles that greeted every Liverpool player’s early touch.
It was the kind of atmosphere to be expected from a home support who had seen their team achieve the impossible in the previous round, yet perhaps that remarkable comeback against Barcelona counted against the Italians here. La Liga’s champions suffered because of a false sense of security; Liverpool had no such delusions.
Klopp’s team have rarely been able to rely on their defence. They did not attempt to in Rome. As a result, they matched Roma’s two first-leg away goals by half-time, courtesy of Sadio Mane and Georginio Wijnaldum.
As it turned out, those two efforts were enough, despite the cock-ups at the back that led to James Milner’s comical own goal and Dzeko’s strike shortly after half-time, before Radja Nainggolan’s two late goals. It was not the defending of European champions, and it could yet be that Real Madrid tear them apart in the final.
Then again, Liverpool look as if they can tear anyone apart. If you get a ticket for Kiev, you are among the lucky ones; it will be a feast of attacking football to be enjoyed across Europe, from Madrid to Merseyside, from Ukraine to Switzerland.
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