It all started in Kiev.
It was in the Ukrainian capital that Liverpool’s impressive Champions League run ended in disappointment twelve months ago. And it was there that the seeds of another run to the final were planted – at least in the mind of Jurgen Norbert Klopp.
The planning seemed to start right away. Two days after goalkeeper Lloris Karius had gifted Real Madrid two calamitous goals on the way to a 1-3 defeat, the Anfield giants announced the 43 million pound signing from Monaco of midfield lynchpin Fabinho.
The Brazilian was joined in pre-season training by Naby Keita, a 58 million pound signing – agreed a year earlier – from RB Leipzig. Others would soon follow: Swiss star Xerdan Shaqiri arrived from relegated Stoke City for 13m pounds and then Liverpool paid a stunning 67 million pounds to bring in Brazil goalkeeper Alisson Becker (Above) from Roma.
What we’ve since witnessed has been one of the best seasons ever seen from a Liverpool side, certainly in the Premier League era and arguably in all of Liverpool FC history. Just one defeat in an ultimately futile league title chase that yielded a whopping 97 points, 30 wins and a mere 22 goals conceded.
There was even more to admire in the Champions League, as impressive conquests of PSG, Bayern, Porto and Barcelona led the Reds back to another Champions League final.
The easy conclusion to draw would be that Liverpool’s summer spending spree has been the key to their impressive progress since Kiev. But that hardly tells the full story.
Of course the arrivals of Alisson, Fabinho, Keita and Shaqiri has added much needed depth and quality to the squad, but much more important than that has been the coaching – preparation, inspiration and tactics – of Klopp and this team’s commitment to continuous improvement.
Consider this: when Liverpool take the field at Wanda Metropolitano on Saturday, the starting eleven will include no less than eight of the players that started in Kiev 12 months ago; of the newcomers, only Alisson and Fabinho are likely to start.
It speaks to a continuity, consistency and familiarity – “rhythm” as Klopp often describes it – that the German has instilled in this squad over the past three years and it’s that quality that so often transforms this team to a level beyond the sum of its different parts.
|LIVERPOOL XI||LIVERPOOL XI*|
|Kiev 2018||Madrid 2019|
|van Dijk||van Dijk|
There is no bigger example of this than the match that booked their place in this final, the 4-0 trouncing of mighty Barcelona – Messi et al – at a packed Anfield three weeks ago. It’s not just that Liverpool overcame a daunting 0-3 deficit from the first leg, it’s that they did it with both Mohammed Salah and Roberto Firmino out injured on the sidelines.
Surely, a starting line up featuring Divock Origi and Shaqiri would have eased whatever fears Barca may have harboured at the start of the match. They were left stunned by the cohesion and intensity of Klopp’s side by the end of it.
They weren’t the first to be stunned on the Reds ride to the final- and it’s not just about the power of Anfield. Bayern Munich left Anfield in celebratory mood in February, having secured a goalless draw they felt they could build on at home, yet it was Liverpool that triumphed 3-1 at the Allianz Arena.
Porto conceded early at Anfield, but they were still in it heading back to the Dragao, after limiting the damage to a mere two-goal deficit. But Klopp’s side weathered the early storm in Oporto and rode off with a 4-1 win.
Team cohesion is one thing, but it’s also hard to think of a single Liverpool player that hasn’t shown significant improvement on a personal level in the last year. The full backs – Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson – have certainly blossomed this season and are as good a pair, at least in terms of creativity, as any in Europe today. Joe Gomez put in a string of highly impressive performances before injury curtailed his season back in December, and Joel Matip has earned new found respect among Liverpool fans in the past few months.
The fact that those four cost Liverpool a grand total of 12 million pounds in transfer fees only further highlights the earlier point: it’s not just about big money players. But even the most expensive of them; the impressive, imperious Virgil Van Dijk – PFA Player of the year – has stepped up another level from his first half season in Liverpool red.
Particularly eye-catching for me has been how several players have improved the use of their weaker foot this season. You can see it in the fact that the left footed Salah has scored six goals off his right foot this season; You can see it in Mane’s delicately chipped left foot goal at Bayern Munich. And you can definitely see it in the ease with which right back Alexander-Arnold swung over a perfectly placed left-footed cross-field pass to find Robertson before the equaliser at Man City.
Just think back to the obvious discomfort of James Milner at left back two seasons ago, his reluctance to cross the ball with his left foot and the constant, predictable tendency to cut inside to his right foot. Watch him play now and it is remarkable how at ease he is hitting the ball with either feet. When a veteran like Milner – two Premier League titles – is willing to learn new tricks, you know you are on to something special.
It is those qualities that have brought Liverpool back to another Champions League final just twelve months on. It’s those qualities that they will need to crystallise into one final performance on Saturday to cap a wonderful season with the biggest prize in world football.
On to Madrid.