I DON’T want to add to the nerves, but…
Wednesday’s Europa League Final against Sevilla is about as big as they come. Forget about the old UEFA Cup being the poor relation; this is all about timing for Liverpool FC.
Whisper it, but we’ve lost our last two cup finals. Throw in last season’s Wembley debacle at the hands of Aston Villa and there’s a danger that we develop a choking mindset on the big stage. The players have handled pressure through a variety of second-leg circumstances against Manchester United, Borussia Dortmund and Villarreal, but the acid test comes when medals and trophies are at stake.
As I’m writing this piece, I’m reminded that it is 10 years to the day Steven Gerrard’s efforts won the FA Cup in Cardiff. One trophy since (the 2012 League Cup) in the decade that followed isn’t good enough for Liverpool Football Club and enough men in that period have paid the price.
Our detractors claim our recourse to history makes us deluded, but it is the standards to which we aspire that set us apart. As fans, these values urge us on; we refuse to accept mediocrity and at times sound like whinging bastards. Yes, we “support and believe” in the ground but we also love a good moan while remaining generally fair and constructive away from Anfield.
In recent times, adhering to standards meant Roy Hodgson’s demeanour and football was never acceptable and why even the sanctity of Kenny Dalglish was questioned for an appalling league campaign in 2012. Expectation determined that Brendan Rodgers’s 2014 honeymoon couldn’t last after last year’s strife and explains, along with the lure our history gives us, why we now have Jürgen Klopp at the helm.
We never settle for second best; even if we have spent a quarter of a century off our domestic perch, and the last 10 years vainly hoping to reclaim a place among the true elite.
Next week in Basel we have the opportunity to catapult ourselves back into the big time. A league season that has been one to forget can be erased overnight and, instead, glory can be the watchword for 2016 and beyond.
There is the prospect of a trophy drought ended, a ninth European gong (we’re not counting Super Cups…), the return of Champions League football and a boost to Klopp’s coffers; plus medals and bigger, harder heads for the current crop and a glossy sales pitch for players all over to come and join the Liverpool party.
It would also represent an immediate coronation for the new manager. We might not have the numbers in Basel to replicate of scenes that serenaded Gerard Houllier in Dortmund and Rafa Benitez in Istanbul but those who are there will give it a good go. And, there will be a cast of thousands back home waiting to acclaim these Reds and their new leader.
Town on Thursday and a potential victory homecoming is quite a prospect.
We might even hear “All you need is Klopp” replace the current dirge on offer for big Jürgen. In defence of Opus who penned the dubious summer chart hit Life is Life in 1985, they put a bit more oomph and personality into the “Na, na, na na” bit than our fans seem capable of. Leave it, yeah? Is it just me or does it not make more sense to go with tunes lent by Liverpool’s “Four Lads who shook the World” over an eighties Austrian reggae outfit?
So, lots to look forward to if we win, but lose and things look different; the sun will go in on this little spring jaunt. There will be the scant consolation of a crack at next year’s domestic league title without continental distraction (assuming we don’t have this nightmare scenario) but we will lament another trophyless year.
Appetite for complete, unsettling overhaul and no European football to attract the quality required of new recruits could set us back. Even Klopp, loved by all and sundry, could do without the “lost two cup finals” tag if next season’s begins to feel like a grind by late autumn and some of his new crop struggle to settle.
Somehow though, it seems ordained that we win. It feels new and shiny for Liverpool whereas for Sevilla (four times winners and going for a hat-trick of consecutive final wins) familiarity might breed contempt. Only the slightest edge needs to be taken off in terms of mentality for performance to drop a significant notch.
The Reds, actually primed by the heartbreak of losing on penalties in the Capital One Final, have huge motivation and a man in charge who wouldn’t take kindly to another slip at the last hurdle.
Klopp, after a hugely promising first sortie in Europe with Liverpool, doesn’t need to win, but there is a sense his football ego demands it. In the dressing room, he will be the definition of warmth and encouragement but the lads he picks will play with the right measure of fear and expectation.
For this group of Liverpool players, there is opportunity to confound critics; to prove wrong those who made snap judgements; to make fools of others who questioned attitude and accused of brittle mentality in the rush to lambast either the transfer committee or the previous manager.
If Emre Can was a committee buy and Dejan Lovren a Brendan Rodgers player, there is no doubt both were written off prematurely. However, each has thrived under a new, more resonant voice and stricter fitness regime. They aren’t the only two to make quantum leaps, or just settle down under Klopp, but the point persists that some of us have to gulp down a portion of humble pie.
At various junctures, I thought Can and Lovren were both crap. But nothing would please me more to see them carousing with cup on Wednesday night.
And for all those who have given Simon Mignolet dogs’ abuse and made Anfield for him the very antithesis of home advantage, I hope he saves three pens in the shoot-out and takes the edge off your night. It might well be, and probably should be, Mignolet’s swansong as Liverpool’s No 1, but I hope your catcalls and ironic cheers keep you awake during the summer. And may God spare you if Kloppo decides to keep him on.
All things considered, the players have every incentive and motivation to succeed and the right man in charge to channel their energy the right way. No pressure then, lads.
Aside from the various bounties that come from a famous victory (we forgot a piss-up for the Super Cup against one of the Madrids), history tells us that UEFA success leads to bigger things. Bill Shankly’s UEFA Cup crusades in 1973 and 1976 and finals — won over two legs in those days — prepared the ground for the first of our European Cup in 1977. Bob Paisley had taken over by then, cunning as a fox to deliver Shankly’s ultimate dream, but the experience gained from those earlier campaigns with many of the same players was invaluable.
Fast forward a generation and even Rafa Benitez will admit that peaks scaled during Houllier’s UEFA Cup conquest of 2001 steeled many of his Istanbul heroes for the conquest of Milan in 2005. Now, under Klopp, victory this week could forge the beginnings of a European adventure he can see through to its end himself.
And don’t forget it is Cardiff for next year’s Champions League final — so perhaps the invasion Klopp wanted in Basel (a desire now retracted) is just 12 months away. You never know in football and as Clive Tyldesley said on the commentary in Istanbul: “You never know with Liverpool.”
And that is why, we now look forward to a 12th European final — our “delusion” as supporters has delivered another occasion most clubs can only dream of. And the time is right.