Liverpool players have been told to filter out the noise of history at the Stadio Olympico tonight and focus only on fighting for their dream of reaching the Champions League final on what could be a landmark night in the Jurgen Klopp era.
Rome, of course, was the venue for one of Liverpool’s greatest European nights when they faced Serie A giants Roma on their own turf in the 1984 European Cup final and won a memorable penalty shoot-out thanks to the ‘wobbly legs’ routine of charismatic goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar and a successful final spot-kick from Alan Kennedy.
Thirty-eight years on and Liverpool are back at the same venue, against the same side, with a cacophony of noise surrounding the tie, whether that is down to the form of Mo Salah, the hooligan problems predicted and feared in the Eternal City, or the sheer passion of the home crowd.
However, manager Klopp, whose team are strong favourites to reach the final in Kiev after winning the first leg 5-2, is asking for tunnel vision on the pitch as his players focus only on one thing: Winning the tie in order to fulfil another dream.
He said: “It is fantastic, the specific story of Liverpool and Rome and their games, but I think nobody here really thinks that it helps a lot that our ‘grandfathers’ won here. It is just a game in a wonderful stadium, in a wonderful city against a very strong side.
“Creating history does not happen when someone says before hand. It happens and then someone says ‘that’s history’. We don’t have to think about it. We don’t have to make it bigger than it is.
“We are here to fight for our dreams, that is how it is, and we want to go to the final. You want to play for the big things, on a big stage and that is why we are here. I really, really think we deserve to be here.”
It is not only their own heritage that Liverpool need to ignore, however. This season’s Champions League history has also played a part in Roma’s belief that they can get through the tie — having already knocked out Barcelona, despite losing the first leg of their quarter-final 4-1 in the Nou Camp.
“I am not here to say anything about Barcelona,” Klopp insisted. “They have not done a lot wrong in the last few years. Barcelona probably thought it was decided. Everyone is telling us it is quite difficult — and that it is possible for them to turn around the tie, but no-one told Barcelona it is possible to beat you 3-0 because no-one could imagine it could happen, but it happened.
“I didn’t need a warning, but if a warning was needed, it was a warning, but the closer the game comes, Roma will realise they still have to score three: It didn’t happen too often this season against us. I’m not saying it is impossible, but it is quite difficult. We didn’t lose in the Champions League so far.”
Klopp, himself, has experience to fall back on, as his Borussia Dortmund side once went to the Bernabeu in 2013 with a 4-1 advantage over Real Madrid in a Champions League semi-final. The La Liga giants scored two late goals in the last 10 minutes, but Dortmund held on to go through, though the German won’t be referencing the game in his pre-match team talk.
“I cannot tell the boys old fairytales that you have a manager that came through at Madrid. That does not help,” he said. “We are not Borussia Dortmund, they are not Real Madrid, we are another team, it’s in a another stadium. So, we don’t have to think too much about that. We go there actually to try to win the game, not to only lose 2-0. You cannot come to a semi-final and play average football.”
It is clear, in fact, that Klopp has no intention of setting up his side to draw in Rome. It has never been his way and Roma’s need to score three goals means Liverpool can look to counter-attack and finish the tie early.
“Do not forget, we are really difficult to play,” he said. “There is no perfect plan for it. If you really want to win, you have to accept beforehand you could lose and still be really brave, not wait to be brave. Use their situation more than they use their situation, because they have to win against us.”
If they can do it, then reaching their eighth European Cup final would be a huge stepping stone on Liverpool’s road back to the glory days of the 1970s and 80s, when these kind of European nights helped built the club’s global fanbase and their aura of football glamour. It certainly looks like things are now set up for future success. News that 27-goal Roberto Firmino has agreed a new improved five-year contract gave Liverpool fans an extra boost in the build-up to this game and Klopp offered hope that Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah could follow suit, as he continues to build the club.
“This is one very important step, absolutely,” Klopp said, referring to Firmino’s deal. “But even Roberto cannot play alone. We need to carry on in this way. In the moment, every player knows about our plans. He’s the first to commit, but for sure he won’t be the last.”
Salah, too, is being offered a new, big-money deal and the former Roma player, who was named Football Writers Association Footballer of the Year yesterday, is tipped to be the hero yet again against his former team on another big Liverpool night.
“He has matured and got confidence since he was here,” said Klopp .
“He came from Chelsea and had a good season on loan at Fiorentina, before learning at Roma, but then he grew up and we are the lucky guys to have him in the team.”
All Salah’s form, including two goals in the 5-2 first leg victory, will count for nothing, however, if Liverpool fall at the first hurdle here and that, perhaps, is Klopp’s biggest message when it comes to creating history rather than wallowing in it.
“I don’t think that people are interested in semi-final losers, same as final losers,” he said. “I could write a book about that, we all know that. but the only way to win something is to go the whole way, so if this team goes to the final, it would be an outstanding — outstanding — achievement.
“Of course, it’s not the prize you want. If you go to a final, then of course you have to think a little bit bigger, but it would be something we could not have expected at the start of the season.”
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