Liverpool is back in the Champions League knockout stages. Back with a bang. It has been a while. None of the players from the team that managed to go out of the group stages last time are with the team now. It took a change of ownership, 4 managerial changes and 3254 days for the Champions League to be back at Anfield in spring. Even the stadium is different now with the new Main Stand.
The famous European nights at Anfield
This is probably a bit of a cliche. There were also some dark, dark years during which Anfield wasn’t even full, let alone rocking on European nights. We’ve all heard the stories from the golden years and some of us have been lucky enough to see or be part of the more recent legendary nights. Anfield has been an unfriendly place for visiting teams in European competitions over the last dozen seasons. Since Rafa Benitez was appointed the manager in the summer of 2004 the mighty Reds have lost just 10 European games at home and the win percentage on famous nights is on par with the average for that period.
*Stats exclude qualifying games in the Europa League and earlier rounds of CL qualifying. Big games are determined by the opponent and round of competition. All CL knockout games are considered big.
Anfield has seen 5 European semi-finals in the last 13 seasons (LFC didn’t play in Europe in two of them), going all the way to the final 3 times. The famous nights are not a myth. For well over a decade Liverpool have been dominant at home no matter the opposition or the competition.
The only time I have seen Liverpool play at home was back in the 14/15 season when they hosted Ludogorets – the first Champions League game at Anfield for quite some time. I was in the away end since it was relatively easy to get a ticket from Bulgaria. The Bulgarian champions weren’t considered tough opposition. In fact on the way to the stadium, I overheard a conversation between a Red and an Everton supporter. The blue chap thought Ludogorets had firemen and policemen in the squad. Anfield didn’t care about that, it was the first Champions League night under the floodlights for a long time. And the Reds were going to show Europe what the legend was all about. The Kop displayed a mosaic with the 5 European cups. The stadium was rocking. Even the dull game couldn’t bring the level of enthusiasm down. I saw Mario Balotelli score a goal, an event even regular match-goers most likely didn’t witness. Mario fantastico! Mario magnifico! Ole Ole! Liverpool gave up the one-goal lead, just to be saved by a last minute Captain Fantastic penalty. And then it started – the Steven Gerrard song. Every single person, including most of the away end, singing in sync. One could probably hear Anfield from kilometres away. That was not even a big game, more of a special occasion, and the fans still played a big role in pushing the team for the win. Just imagine being in the Kop on a famous night that gives you goosebumps – the Europa League quarter-final against Dortmund, the Champions League semi-finals against Chelsea…
The atmosphere was the best I have ever experienced. It should serve as an example to everyone about how supporters can influence a team and influence a game.
It is no secret that Jurgen Klopp believes that supporters can influence the game. Having spent 7 years in one of the most passionately supported clubs in the world the German found himself at the helm of an underachieving, under-supported team. And in just a few months Klopp managed to turn that around, experiencing in his own words the best atmosphere of his career so far. The German has not managed Liverpool for a full European season. Half of the time he led the team at Anfield, it was in what can be considered a big game. The Reds managed to beat Manchester United, Borussia Dortmund and Villareal on their way to the Europa League final in Klopp’s first season. After beating Hoffenheim in the Champions League playoff LFC managed to squeeze a draw out of the jaws of victory against Sevilla. In those 5 home matches, Liverpool scored 15 goals. Jurgen is yet to lose at Anfield in Europe, winning an astonishing 80% of home games. The sample size is indeed very small but Klopp wants Anfield to be a fortress and is on the way of making it one.
Jurgen Klopp at Anfield
The Reds have been brilliant in front of their supporters this season, only losing once against West Bromwich Albion in the FA Cup. The trend has been building for three years now:
The win percentage has increased across the board since Klopp took over. The German hasn’t lost a home game against a top 6 team since his first one against Manchester United on 17th January 2016. A 19 game undefeated streak that stretches over 2 and a half seasons. That loss is the only suffered by the team in a big game at home since the supporters crashed that flight tracking website. That is how doubters turn into believers.
The team might not really need Anfield at its best against Porto but the atmosphere will be key if the Reds are to make a deep run in the Champions League, it always has been. The Owen’s, Torres’, Suarez’s, Sterling’s and Coutinho’s of this world will come and go. They can be replaced. The rocking Kop magically pulling the ball to the opposition net can’t. That is what makes this club special. Klopp understands that. We finally have our fortress back.