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At Anfield yesterday, after a creditable objective had been achieved by Liverpool, as cute children in replica kits tottered wide-eyed after their fathers, and as an intoxicating relief had flooded the famous old stadium, Lucas Leiva said some words into a microphone, whilst clutching a small memorial in the shape of the number 21 he has worn for a decade.
The famously amiable Brazilian was struggling to master his emotions. His wife had long-since given up the fight, sobbing as she filmed him on her phone. They both knew an era of their lives was ending. I’m happy to say that it got me right in the feel-basket, especially after the affectionate embrace given to the utility man by Kenny Dalglish.
Now, I realise that not everyone is as much of a sentimental sap as your columnist, and if you had your most cynical hat on, if you were the type of person who revels in contrarian curmudgeonliness, you might have found the whole thing a tad mawkish. You know the type of thing – some guff about the celebration of mediocrity, the embarrassing elevation of the ordinary, footballers’ wages, perhaps, maybe you hate babies…whatever.
Thankfully then, before you had time to get overly miserable and petty about a comparatively modest celebration of something good in L4, your cringe radar would have started to ping relentlessly due to the seismic absurdity of events at Stamford Bridge, when an actual game was stopped, with the co-operation of David Moyes’ Sunderland, so that John Terry might be applauded off the field on the 26th minute, in recognition of the years of service given by the Captain/Leader/Legend. It was staggering self-indulgence. The logistics of the obsequious gesture and the player’s will to be part of such a self-aggrandizing display would actually make your head hurt, were you to analyse it because that level of onanism is thankfully beyond most of us.
By contrast, over at Old Trafford, that other Master of Self-Regard, Jose Mourinho, was not feeling the love at all. The professionally bitter Portuguese was introduced to an almost abandoned press room by a hapless PR type who enquired if any of those present had any questions on United’s 2-0 win over Crystal Palace. The absolute silence which ensued could only have been more mortifying if it had been perforated by intermittent cricket noises. Within 10 seconds of arriving, Mourinho was leaving and feigning gratitude for the ‘mercy’ shown him. It honestly put me in mind of that baby gif where the nipper looks stunned upon entering a room and turns away in a gloriously comedic fashion.
Meanwhile, back at Anfield, after all the needless pressure-building talk of cup finals, after all the attendant angst that Klopp’s side would come up just short in the very biggest games for the third time and the second season in a row, the aforementioned relief was most understandable. Much to the dismay of grumpy old codgers everywhere, Jürgen Klopp, his players and staff, and fans everywhere were gratified by the attainment of a play-off spot for the Champions League and had the temerity to celebrate it.
I wrote only last week of how there had been tangible progress at LFC under Klopp, regardless of a top 4 finish, but having secured that coveted berth, the success is more quantifiable and, in the opinion of this columnist, the least the German and his squad deserve for their efforts in a campaign bedevilled by the most wretched luck with injuries to so many key men. In the perverse rush to self-flagellate that so many Reds fans display, it is seen as somehow weak to acknowledge the heavy blow dealt to Klopp by critical absences to a team he was finally starting to mould to his vision. The resulting struggles and the manager’s tendency to stick with the same approach garnered plenty of critical assessments. The final league placing is a pleasing validation for the gaffer and his trusted lieutenants.
The qualifier itself, however, will be far from a formality and the ongoing uncertainty around group stage participation may still be a negative factor in attracting transfer targets but the potential, the chance of the Reds swanning around the finest stadia in Europe is enough for now. 76 points is a splendid return given the troubled circumstances of the campaign and if Klopp can recruit more players of the ilk of Joel Matip, Sadio Mané and Georginio Wijnaldum, that tally can certainly be improved upon in the season to come. The manager and his charges have imbued fans with that most precious of things, justifiable hope, not the kind that kills you, the kind that makes your spirits soar, the kind that makes you dream.
“For me, it’s the best competition, you want to be there and Liverpool needs to be there consistently,” the touchline mentalist insisted. “I love the perspective, I would not say we’re already in because qualification is qualification and we’re already looking forward to it. We will be really strong and we will really fight for it because we want to be there and it’s all good. It’s a fantastic competition and I think in the last 10 years Liverpool was not part of it too often, three years ago once only maybe. We should try everything to change this, we have to make steps and the step for us to be around the best teams in the world because we are one of the best clubs.”
One of the best. That’s bloody right, Jürgen. That’s dead bloody right.
Only the most mealy-mouthed will be anything other than thrilled at the prospect of this manager leading the Redmen into Europe for what will hopefully be the first of many successive seasons. He has wrestled back the fatalistic narrative of the Reds as bottlers. He has overseen the rehabilitation of the reputation of LFC as a match for anyone. He has made us dream and made doubters believe. It’s only the first step, but it feels like the ground is solid underfoot as Liverpool and Klopp begin their journey in earnest.