Champions League was side show for Liverpool, Klopp – not anymore

Date published: Thursday 14th March 2019 10:31

Our Liverpool blogger Dave Tindall reacts to the thrilling Champions League win over Bayern Munich and what’s ahead for Jurgen Klopp’s men in this week’s Red Letter.

Such has been the focus on the Premier League this season, our European adventures have seemed like a bit of a side project.

And yet, despite some bumps along the way, here we are in the quarter-finals of the Champions League again.

The major trophy we could end up winning is the one we’d all slightly forgotten about.

Last season was such an epic, exciting and unexpected journey with its crazy 7-0 victories over Maribor and Sparktak and 5-1 and 7-6 aggregate wins over Man City and Roma that the current Champions League campaign could only suffer by comparison.

It started brightly with the 3-2 win over Paris St. Germain but that came so early in the campaign that it somehow felt like part of the brilliant madness of 2017/18. A new single that seemed as if it was off last season’s best-selling album.

But then the fun went away.

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A trio of away defeats in Naples (dreadful performance), Belgrade (even worse) and Paris (seemingly inevitable) suggested it might even end at the first hurdle. And it very nearly did but for a last-gasp point-blank save by Alisson in the must-win final game against Napoli.

A great moment at the time but it came in the middle of a seven-game winning run in the Premier League which thrust us to the top when City faltered.

Five days after the Napoli game, we beat Man Utd 3-1. Then we secured top spot for Christmas with a 2-0 success at Wolves. And then we smashed in nine goals in further wins against Newcastle and Arsenal to go into 2019 on a high.

With belief rising by the day that our 29-year wait for the domestic title would finally end, nothing else seemed to matter.

We’d made early exits in the two domestic competitions and that helped fuel the belief that this season wasn’t about cups. The Premier League was where it was at. Europe was firmly on the back burner.

Even when the Champions League resumed, a tactically interesting but somewhat boring 0-0 home draw with Bayern didn’t really re-awaken our enthusiasm for Europe and four Premier League games between the first and second legs pushed it out of focus once more.

But then came Wednesday night and a 3-1 win away to fellow five-time European Cup winners Bayern Munich in the Allianz Arena.

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When seeing the team sheet and centre mid triumvirate of Henderson-Wijnaldum-Milner, negative thoughts kicked in and I spent pre-match trying to find out from Twitter what our record was when starting with that stodgy sameness in midfield.

In fact, I’d mentally written the start of this column, gathering my thoughts about how this European campaign had never really clicked into gear and defeat to a powerhouse like Bayern was no disgrace or real surprise and blah blah blah that we could now focus on the league.

Well, slap me on the wrist and other body parts for showing such little faith.

To be honest, my outlook changed very quickly.

From the off in Bavaria, Bayern looked tentative and reluctant to commit men forward.

This wasn’t the swaggering side of old or even the one which went into the game on the back of 5-1 and 6-0 wins in the Bundesliga. They were scared of us.

To be fair, it wasn’t misplaced when Sadio Mane turned into Pele in the 26th minute. Brilliant first touch, clever spin away from Manuel Neuer who, to be fair, looked like he had a mistake in him in both legs and, with a deft chip, the ball was nestling in the back of the net.

Mane banged in 10 goals in last season’s Champions League, scoring in the quarter-final at home to Man City, both legs of the semi-final with Roma and the equaliser in the final against Real Madrid.

Since January 19th, he’s scored 10 times in 10 matches, including braces in three of our last four games (Watford, Burnley and Bayern).

Sadio Mane is very good at football. When Salah stalls and Firmino falters, Mane makes magic.

“I’ll watch the first goal 500 times!” said Klopp after full-time in Munich. “It was outstanding what he did there.” Absolutely right Jurgen and I’ll happily pour over Virgil’s towering header and Mo’s sublime pass for Mane’s second.

So that’s Bayern gone, Real Madrid gone and PSG gone, leaving a somewhat unlikely set of quarter-finalists.

It’s hard not to speculate ahead of Friday’s draw and my mate on WhatsApp came up with this in the post-match giddiness.

“Perfect draw. Liverpool v Porto, Barca v Juve, Manchester derby and Ajax beating Spurs and having four key players suspended for the first leg at Anfield which we win 5-0. Barca beat City in the other semi and we beat Coutinho and Suarez in an entertaining final that finishes 5-4!”

I like it a lot but, putting a sensible hat on, that scenario seems as if it belongs more to the bonkers and mayhem of last season.

This European campaign is a grower. I wasn’t that into it at first but I’m now hearing its more mature notes and structure.

While talk of a Man City Quadruple gathers pace, victory in Munich on Wednesday means there’s another amazing script waiting to be written – a Liverpool Premier League/Champions League double.

It’s inevitable to ask which would you rather win but why not aim for the stars and have both?

Fulham and the favourable fixture list

Before I get tempted to make some lame Brexit pun about us remaining in Europe, I’ll quickly switch attention to the weekend.

It can be easy to slip on a banana skin after a big Champions League night but we’re at Fulham on Sunday and there should be no slip-ups there.

In fact, with Man City in FA Cup action this weekend and Liverpool playing a Friday evening game at Southampton in a couple of weeks’ time before City host Cardiff a day later, we could be five points clear on the night of April 5th if we win our next three Premier League matches. Then the pressure is back on them.

After the inevitable knock in confidence that followed us losing our lead at the top of the table, suddenly the season seems so much brighter again.

We’re fighting on two fronts now and European glory is looming large again.

The defining big away win that’s been eluding us domestically has come in the boss’s homeland.

And it means those throwaway, pain-easing comments after last May’s defeat in Kiev about it being much easier to travel to Madrid for this year’s final may have something in them after all.

 

By Dave Tindall

 

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