Liverpool and that Semi-final feeling again
When I watched Ryan Babel sprint past a tired Cesc Fabregas to finish off an incredible Champions League night, little did I know it was going to take me that long to experience that feeling again.
That feeling! That feeling of being in the semi-final of the UEFA Champions League. That feeling is back again, thanks to a bunch of heroes led by Jurgen Klopp.
That feeling is just made all the more special by the happenings of the last ten years. The club went from top-class under Rafael Benitez, to a dire last season under the Spaniard, and then down to the pits.
Roy Hodgson was captain of a ship that was sinking fast, Kenny Dalglish came in and fared only slightly better. Brendan Rodgers, for all his charms, seemed to let the magnitude of the job get to him after one title challenge.
And then came Herr Klopp! “We need to change from doubters to believers,” he said in his very first interview after taking over the reins at Anfield.
In just over 30 months in the job, Klopp hasn’t left anyone with a choice anymore. Everyone is a believer.
But, the moment for Klopp and his charges came two years ago, on a fateful night in Switzerland. Sevilla had humbled the Reds in the Europa League final, and with the disappointment came the declaration from the German, who has become the centre of all the highs at Anfield.
“The players are still young and this was their first big final – unfortunately, their second [losing] final of the season, but it was a big final and we will use this experience together. Then someday everybody will say Basel was a very decisive moment for the wonderful future of Liverpool FC,” he bellowed.
Can we call it a decisive moment yet? Maybe not. But it is clear that Klopp and the players who were there on that night learnt from that disappointment.
After winning 3-0 at Anfield in the first leg last week, Liverpool had a firm grip on the tie, but if any team in Europe could loosen the grip the Reds held, it was this incredible Manchester City side, who have swatted away most things that have come their way this season.
It was clear after the first leg that City were going to go helter-skelter at the Etihad Stadium. That is just how they play. That Liverpool’s task was going to difficult was only accentuated by Gabriel Jesus’s goal in the second minute.
The Liverpool that we have generally seen under Klopp would’ve wilted under the sheer intensity and relentlessness with which City were attacking. But this is not that Liverpool.
This is a different Liverpool, a more experienced Liverpool, a Liverpool side with more know-how, a Liverpool side that knows how to manage situations. Most importantly, this Liverpool side is made of a bunch of players who have completely immersed themselves in their manager’s methods, and the results are there for all to see.
At the beginning of the season, there were five English teams in the UEFA Champions League. Who was the most inexperienced of them all?
Of course, it was the one that has made it the farthest of them all. This squad will now play a Champions League semi-final, which is an experience that not too many others in the English clubs have.
But it would be foolish to call this Liverpool side anywhere near a finished article. It is still a work in progress. Last night, the first half showed that. But as Klopp always says, it is important to use the different experiences that the team gets.
You go back to Basel; after a first half that went perfectly well, it took one mistake from Alberto Moreno for things to unravel.
After a first leg that went perfectly well at Anfield, the second leg began with an error from Virgil van Dijk to gift City their goal and set the Etihad on fire.
But that is where Liverpool learnt from past mistakes. They refused to budge under the pressure that was being applied to them, and the back four stood tall, particularly Dejan Lovren. Loris Karius hardly had a save of note to make over the course of the two legs and that is a testament to the way Klopp and his team have learnt from the follies of days gone by.
When the draw is made on Friday night, one thing is clear – Liverpool will not fear anyone. When Klopp’s side play their best football, they can give any team in the world a proper beating. With the power of another big European night at Anfield waiting to be unleashed, the Reds will have the belief.
It is the belief that this group of players, for all their perceived shortcomings, can be a part of something special.
But for now, it has been a decade since this happened. The Gerrards and Torres’s from then have been replaced by the Salahs and Firmino’s of now, but one thing remains, the magic of this football club. Savour this, enjoy this, bring on your Roma, bring on your Real, bring on your Bayern!