OKAY, first things first about Basel.
You pass through passport control at the airport. You arrive at a sign. There are flags and colours. Take the left turn and you will end up in Germany or France – in Freiburg or Mulhouse. Take the right turn and you are in Switzerland, in Basel.
I have learned already that this is a city where the inhabitants are sure of who they are. It’s still a bit disorientating, though. The taxi driver asks if we speak German. None of us do. But he speaks English anyway. And his surname on the dashboard indicates he is Arabic – possibly North African. We crack on.
Symbolically at least, maybe Basel is an appropriate setting for this particular occasion: a place where Liverpool’s team – a team, which also possesses multiple personalities – can figure itself out once and for all. Perhaps the mask of doubt will fall and the true identity will be revealed. Are Liverpool good? Are Liverpool bad? They have reached the Europa League final. Maybe they are currently somewhere in between. Maybe the potential is there but it needs to do better. Maybe the confidence gained from victory will inspire necessary improvement. It might allow young players to grow.
Jürgen Klopp has spent the last few days trying to emphasise the game’s significance at this moment. He does not like answering questions about how it might define the future. Understandable, I guess, because if you forget the moment the future might not happen.
Speaking to the players, without prompt they talk about the defeat to Manchester City in February’s League Cup final. There is a sense it came too soon for Liverpool. Too many were not used to the routine of the day: the procession and the finality of it all. No second chances. No way back if it goes wrong. For the first time under Klopp they performed with fear.
It showed because those with a track record of success (James Milner and Kolo Toure) were Liverpool’s most accomplished players. The rest were awkward, uncomfortable in themselves. Liverpool looked like a team that did not know how to deliver on the grandest stage.
The Europa League, of course, is not the grandest stage but anyone who dismisses this game’s importance is either bias, unromantic or, indeed, has forgotten why they either started playing or watching football in the first place.
Klopp has said the fact a victory would move Liverpool into the Champions League through the back door has not entered his consciousness. That’s good because he’s motivated by the right things and it explains why it seems that Liverpool, once again, have a manager who is in touch the carnal desires of supporters.
He must know – deep down – what qualification for the Champions League really means, though. It means his first campaign in charge of Liverpool will be judged as an undisputed success in spite of an eighth place league finish. No Liverpool manager has been appointed mid-season and been able to deliver a trophy at the end of it. He would create history: a firm platform to build from.
Although the journey has been wonderful, he will be able to point towards silverware – something definite – in the way Brendan Rodgers was never able to when opinions turned against him. It gives him an argument during lean spells, particularly if they happen next season. He might be popular now. But moods can change.
It would reduce the chances of him having to expend energy on fight the same fires that appeared at Borussia Dortmund, who were always no more than six months away from losing at least one if not two of his best players to their domestic rival, Bayern Munich.
Should Liverpool reach the Champions League, it is unimaginable other Premier League clubs will be able to take their best players, as Manchester City did with Raheem Sterling. Instead, the best players would want to come to Liverpool: a club winning trophies, a club in the Champions League; a club managed by someone as intriguing and charismatic as Klopp.
Winning would strengthen Liverpool’s appeal and weaken that of others. For the first time in a decade, Liverpool would perhaps hold an advantage over Manchester United and Chelsea.
Basel is a city at the crossroads of Europe. Liverpool is a club at a crossroads of football.