THE season is over, the season is done. After 38 league games, a handful of cup matches and numerous moments of panic, the Premier League has come to its conclusion for another year. For some it will be seen as something of a disappointment, believing that we were in a title race up until we spontaneously combusted in January and February. For me, though, I think it’s been a very definite success. We still have two qualifying games to get through but provided that they go smoothly enough then Jürgen Klopp will lead us into the Champions League for only the second time since Rafa Benitez departed.
It’s interesting that people were so keen for the Reds to be seeded for the upcoming Champions League qualifying games. If this season has taught us anything it is surely that we are supporters of a Liverpool side that, above all else, has figured out how to beat the better sides. As the campaign wore on the majority of fans became far more concerned with how we’d cope against Bournemouth than how we’d deal with Chelsea or Manchester United. In our final handful of games we largely put that notion to bed, beating Stoke, West Brom, Watford, West Ham and Middlesbrough, but it’s an interesting phenomenon nevertheless.
Let’s have a little look at our record against the top six in the league, shall we? We beat Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and drew with them at home; beat Arsenal home and away; drew with Spurs at White Hart Lane when we really should have won and then battered them at Anfield; drew with Manchester United twice; beat Manchester City at home and could easily have taken three points off them at the Etihad. This is a side that knows how to go toe to toe with the best teams and get a result against them.
That’s exciting for a number of reasons. I don’t imagine that we’ll go unbeaten against the top six again next season, but you have to fancy that Klopp will strengthen the team this summer and we’ll stand a decent chance of winning the mini-league again. Combine that with the ruthlessness against the ‘lesser’ sides that we displayed towards the end of the season and we might well be in a decent position to have a tilt at the title. Such discussions about how we’ll cope on the domestic front are for another time and I’m sure more than a few Anfield Wrap contributors will have something to say on the matter as the summer wears on.
It’s Europe that interests me.
Supporters of rival clubs might revel in the opportunity to mock us for our consistent belief in our impending success, yet the simple truth is that Liverpool Football Club is European royalty. We have won five European Cups, more than the entirety of London put together; more than both Manchester clubs combined, despite all their riches. Since we won our last European Cup Barcelona have won four, yet all that’s done is put them level with us on five. Since the turn of the Millennium, Bayern Munich have been in the competition every single year but have only managed to win the Champions League one more time than us.
There’s something about Liverpool and Europe, something exciting and virtually indefinable. If you don’t believe me then just ask Borussia Dortmund. When they came to Anfield in the Europa League they took a 2-0 lead before 10 minutes were even on the clock, yet the power of the stadium pushed the Reds on to win the second-half 4-1. It reminded plenty of people of Istanbul and our comeback against AC Milan. Eleven years earlier, with a different man in the dugout and entirely different players on the pitch but exactly the same outcome — Liverpool winning from an impossible situation. When the opposition is European, the Reds aren’t scared by anybody.
What kind of a combination could Klopp in the dugout and our supporters in the stands provide us with? How many clubs are going to want to draw us, should we make it into the hat for the group stages? Not only do they know that Anfield is a tricky place to go when the floodlights are on and the crowd is in good voice, but they will have seen how we’ve dealt with the best sides the Premier League has to offer and they’ll be concerned. Our match against Barcelona back in August of 2016 was only a pre-season friendly and there are any number of reasons why you can’t read too much into it, but if we go up against them in the Champions League next season they’ll remember getting mauled and won’t be thrilled about it.
Klopp is not perfect, no manager is. One of his finest traits, however, is the ability to harness moods. He can see the power that Anfield offers and can play the crowd like an orchestra, getting us to roar the team on when they need it the most. It’s almost impossible not to be excited about the idea of watching us go up against the likes of Juventus, Bayern Munich or Benfica next season with Klopp in the dugout. I don’t imagine for one second that a red carpet will be rolled out for Real Madrid, should we draw Los Blancos at some point.
Whether we want to admit it or not, Liverpool’s star has fallen far in recent years. Get through the Champions League qualifiers and we will very much be ‘back where we belong’, but just because we belong there doesn’t give us the de facto right to be in the competition. Some people seem to have forgotten that every single side needs to earn the right to appear in Europe’s premier club competition and the Reds simply haven’t been doing that often enough over the last decade. We all hate the idea of a ‘five-year plan’ and Klopp’s been very canny in not using such terminology, but we’re in the middle of one right now.
Since the advent of the Premier League it has felt as though Liverpool have had to have a running jump at success before fading away when we’ve missed the target. Things feel different now. Klopp is a manager who knows that you need to build gradually on success and earn it every single year. He’s been making small changes and implementing different ideas that will see us gradually become a force once again. If you don’t believe me then witness his treatment of Steven Gerrard. Rather than being concerned by the looming shadow of our former captain, the German has embraced it. He knows that one man alone cannot create a legacy.
One of the best things Klopp has done is teach both his players and the club’s supporters that there is no team we should be scared of facing. We have gone up against the richest teams in English football and coped with everything that they had to throw at us. All of the reports seem to be that Fenway Sports Group know it’s now time to spend big to compete on a level playing field and that the manager will have money to spend this summer. We’re already a good team, now we need to become a great one.
Bring on your Internazionale…