Victory essential for Liverpool if Klopp is to add substance to the style
Unlike their heroic title battle with City, second place will be nothing on this occasion
Jurgen Klopp: Champions League success would provide a fitting climax to an extraordinary effort by Liverpool over the course of a memorable season. Photograph: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
“Why are the best people not in politics?” Jürgen Klopp asked Jonathan Liew in a fascinating interview the pair conducted in Madrid for the London Independent.
“Because we don’t pay them enough,” he continued, swiftly answering himself and proving that, for all the curiosity of his mind, Klopp has yet to stumble on the pensions afforded to the titans of the Irish political scene.
Saturday night in Madrid and a unique European football final awaits Liverpool and Spurs: the last big fling after a jaw-dropping season for the English game.
It was a winter defined by extremes; the unparalleled heights to which Manchester City and Liverpool soared in their attempts to shake one another off and, far below, the mortal performances of England’s other leviathan clubs. Klopp has been a central figure in the drama and it was brilliant yet unsurprising to see him pouring his heart out in a proper written interview on the eve of the final.
In the build-up to the Manchester derby, played on April 24th, one of the sub-themes was whether United’s local and global fan base would like to beat their cross-city rivals and consequently give Liverpool a crucial edge in the title race or if they’d “prefer” to just suck up defeat in order to prevent that happening.
The choice was an advertisement for the bleakness of Manchester United’s role in the 2019 season. But it was also an inadvertent slight on Manchester City, revealing when it comes to bitterness and hatred and envy – all the priceless feelings of fandom – City haven’t yet earned that place yet.
The Manchester United perspective is that City’s success is sudden and largely manufactured by the sudden injection of limitless cash; they can live with City sweeping up a few league titles during their own period of chaos just as long as Liverpool don’t once again impose themselves as the kings of the slog and toil of English league seasons.
There may be fat chance of that happening. One of the least remarked aspects of the 2019 season was that by rights, it should have been a non-event. Last year, City took 100 points from their 38 games and cruised to the title. Liverpool were a distant 25 points behind them on the table. This year, City maintained that ferociously consistent winning form, finishing with 98 points. It was up to the other contenders to live with them.
All failed, except for Liverpool, whose rapid ascension to a celestial level of domestic form surprised everyone, even Klopp. And it was the salvation of a season that otherwise would have been a race to second between the rest. The epic two-team contest disguised the alarming gulf between City and the other teams in England.
The 1980s were Liverpool’s golden years for league titles. In the most famous league race of that decade, between Arsenal and Liverpool in 1989, played out against the backdrop of the Hillsborough tragedy, both clubs could afford to lose six games and still vie for the title. Both finished on 76 points that year.
So Liverpool’s runner-up total of 97 points, achieved against the pressure of having to live with the metronomic splendour of Guardiola’s team, was thrilling for fans and neutrals to follow.
And for Anfield fans –regular and occasional – those games have been breathtaking. The chase – and even for the brief week when Liverpool threatened to move seven points clear, it felt as though they were the ones in pursuit – was so enthralling and beautiful that in the end, for all the disappointment, it felt okay, somehow, to fall short.
Much of that has been down to Klopp’s persona; the purity of approach, the optimism, the willingness to communicate his feelings and his insane dance-movement on the sideline when he often appears to be invisibly connected to the electrical voltage of the crowd, physically responding to their emotional surges.
Klopp’s default setting is one of joy and energy. In his five years at Liverpool, he has almost effortlessly entered the realm of revered figures in the club; watch the interviews, and scroll through social media and just listen to the Kop, it’s obvious this generation of Liverpool fans believe they are experiencing their own version of the Shankly or Bob Paisley.
If there was a dark grandeur about Alex Ferguson’s reign at Old Trafford and an agitated mania about Jose Mourinho’s smash-and-grab seasons with Chelsea, then Klopp’s influence has been about inclusivity and enjoyment and club-as-social-entity.
There is no resentment, no jealousy of the success of others and, over the years, a gradual realisation, too, that Klopp’s mildly left, socialist leanings chime perfectly with those of the city.
This should have been a season of unconfined heartbreak, falling short to City by that solitary point and then destroyed, at least on the scoreboard, by Barcelona and Messi in the semi-final away tie of the Champions League semi-final.
That 4-0 return victory at Anfield – without Mohammad Salah, without Roberto Firmino, against Barcelona – was an exercise in spirituality; a demonstration of unreasonable self-belief and faith.
To achieve that while locked into their gruelling battle with flawlessness in the league was something. So much of that has come from Klopp. With the purity of effort comes absolutely no regrets and the limitless belief that anything – anything – is possible.
So it all brings Liverpool to the threshold of what might become the most famous of their European trophy nights. And in the long warm afternoon in Madrid, as the beers kick in and the songs are sung and the fans kip wherever they can, there are bound to be a few troubling thoughts bouncing in the back of Liverpool minds.
For if the league season was wonderful – a winter-long exhibition of fearless and imaginative attacking football – then it was also frightening. And if that effort was not good enough, then what must they do next season? And the season after that? Can they go better?
In his time in the city, Klopp has managed to teach a club at which victory – in the title race – was paramount that if you leave everything out there, then not winning is okay.
There are moments when you have to accept the randomness in football just as you accept the randomness of life. It’s not a philosophy that would interest Ferguson very much. And it’s also a break from the old orthodoxy at Liverpool, where the gold standard has always been about the importance of winning titles and cups.
“If you are first you are first,” was one of Shankly’s flintier declarations. “ If you are second, you are nothing.”
After the 2019 Premier League title race, that wasn’t quite true. And through a long slow Saturday in Madrid it will feel as if Liverpool are reaching the climax of a magical season. But tonight, in the stadium, facing a Spurs team who are grappling with their own unprecedented journey, a Spurs team which Liverpool bested by 26 points in the league, in a winner-takes-history cup final, Shankly’s old maxim will hold true.
Second will be nothing on this occasion. Because Jürgen Klopp’s radiant energy has brought them this far, this European final has become a game that Liverpool and Klopp must win if there is to be some lasting substance to go with the fantastical.