As Liverpool’s travelling fans reach the final leg of their European jaunt on Wednesday night, it will only take a glass or two of Swiss ale to stir memories of a very specific time in the recent past. Heading eastward across the continent to face well-grooved opposition for a European title, many of Jurgen Klopp’s Scouse disciples will surely note the uncanny resemblance between their current season and the debut campaign of the last continental cult hero to have taken Anfield by storm, 11 years ago.
Like Klopp, Rafa Benitez took the reins from a rhapsodising manager who had briefly got the Kop dreaming, but who built on a second-place finish with a litany of big-money signings whose abject failure prompted regression and dismissal. Like Klopp, Benitez was hired for the way he’d razed the pecking order in his home nation, and was tasked with imposing his giant-slaying blueprint on a shapeless side that had lost its way.
Both managers got their Premier League careers under way with underwhelming, uneventful draws at White Hart Lane before overseeing debut campaigns that even the most charitable folk would have to call shoddy: Benitez failed to notch a single win against the powerhouses of Middlesbrough,Blackburn and Birmingham, and come May had taken fifth spot in what back then was a four-horse race.
Klopp has gone one better, contriving to crank down the win percentage that got his predecessor the boot, en route to the club’s joint-lowest league finish since 1955. Eighth place marks a return to the recent nadirs of the days when Charlie Adam was panting his way around the Anfield pitch and Kenny Dalglish was putting in batch orders of printed T-shirts.
And yet these middling travails didn’t prevent either Benitez or Klopp from emphatically reinstating joy and belief to a most weather-beaten fanbase. A League Cup final – both lost at the last hurdle – didn’t hurt momentum in either instance, but it’s the European weeknights, specifically the ones at Anfield, that put the gloss on both men’s restoration jobs.
For Olympiacos, Juventus and Chelsea in 2005, read Manchester United,Borussia Dortmund and Villarreal this time around, each night marked by an old-fashioned sense of occasion, cranking up the decibel levels in the stands – and presenting hard evidence of a plan falling into place on the pitch. As with then, a victorious final would mitigate this season’s domestic mediocrity by fast-tracking the club into next year’s Champions League.
All these parallels, bubbling away in the background, were made explicit the instant Dejan Lovren’s towering header saw off Dortmund on that gloriously absurd night last month, completing the three-goal reversal that the next morning’s headlines, almost without exception, lauded as Klopp’s “Istanbul moment”.
In fact, the comparison, however tempting, was the wrong one. While “Klopp’s Olympiacos moment” might not have shifted so many editions, Lovren’s goal in front of the Kop, securing progress rather than silverware, was more akin toSteven Gerrard’s group-stage firecracker in December ’04 – which, as anyone at Anfield that night would tell you, is no disparagement at all. It simply means that to qualify as such, any “Istanbul moment” would need to happen in the final.
And it’s probably at the final where the parallels diverge. After all, no outcome on Wednesday, however dramatic, will match the magnitude or madness of Istanbul. And while it’s nice to play spot the similarity, Klopp is very much his own man – and a manager whose high-energy, high-emotion gameplan is some way removed from the coolly calculated smotherings with which his Spanish counterpart plotted his course through Europe.
As for the future, though, the state of Liverpool’s squad on both occasions means that comparisons can’t help but apply. And Klopp, the warmest and most theatrically charismatic of managers, could certainly take a lesson or two from Benitez’s icy detachment in the wake of his 2005 triumph.
That game featured at least half a dozen players – Dudek, Traore, Hamann, Smicer, Cisse, Baros – who had no place in the manager’s plans, and for whom the machinations would quickly be set in motion that they be upgraded with immediate effect. That summer’s incomings – Reina, Crouch, Sissoko – reflected Benitez’s appreciation of the need to inject some physicality into his side if he was to avoid another season of domestic underachievement.
Klopp too will know that for Liverpool fans a European trophy – magnificent fun as it would be – would largely be a bonus, a progress marker, on the hunt for that elusive Holy Grail. And while the reconstructive surgery performed by Benitez in the wake of Istanbul eventually paved the way for a rip-roaring, bona fide title charge – the nearly-but-not-quite campaign of 2008/09 – the operation required of Klopp is more of a low-key nip and tuck job.and Rafael Benitez return from Istanbul with the Champions League trophy, 2005
Undoubtedly, there are one or two central figures who need replacing (his goalkeeper and senior centre-halves chief among them) and, this being Liverpool, a misfiring big-money striker who needs to be shifted. But the task in hand is less overhaul, more a series of well-judged tweaks.
In Divock Origi, Roberto Firmino and Daniel Sturridge (not to mention the distinctly Klopp-flavoured Danny Ings), the German already has a squadron of forwards with a healthy mix of wit, ego and magic dust, while the selection of midfielders at his disposal should do for now, provided that Emre Can – still only 22 – can begin to regularly deliver the swaggering X-factor that he’s hinted so tantalisingly at for two seasons. Should Klopp’s Liverpool congeal into a force to be reckoned with, the smart money’s surely on the matinee-idol midfielder emerging as its heartbeat, in much the way Xabi Alonso did for his countryman Benitez.
Add into the equation the steep improvements sparked by Klopp in a gaggle of players that had all been written off prior to his arrival – namely Dejan Loren,Joe Allen, Origi and the unrecognisably battle-hungry Adam Lallana – and there’s sound evidence that the German is not just aware of the transformative effects of good coaching, but able to implement them with startlingly quick effect. If the managerial message of the season, imparted largely by Claudio Ranieri and Mauricio Pochettino, has been that there’s much to be had from simply working with what you’ve got, then Klopp looks to be another acolyte.
Given a summer to tailor the squad he inherited in something approaching his image, and all the signs are there that Klopp is capable of putting together a team that not only surpasses the sum of its parts, but puts on a bit of a show in the process. And what more could his fans ask? Aside from a gleaming European trophy, of course.