THIS is how it feels – and what it means – to be Liverpool in 2019
In Istanbul in 2005, it was Liverpool conceding in the opening minute; in Madrid in 2019, it was Liverpool winning a penalty in the opening minute. But the circumstances between the Reds winning number five and number six could not have been more different.
Fourteen years ago, Rafa Benitez’s side were the underdogs against the best team in Europe. Going into Saturday’s final in Madrid, Jurgen Klopp’s side were arguably the best team in Europe – they just needed to prove it. They were the favourites, and they simply had to win.
A second consecutive Champions League final provided the starting point for why Liverpool were arguably already the best side in Europe, having beaten the champions of France, Germany and Spain en route to Madrid.
Since defeat in Kiev a year ago, they have recorded the club’s highest ever points total and produced the club’s best-ever European performance – in doing so, being the first side ever to overcome a three-goal first-leg deficit in a semi-final.
They’d not lost a knockout tie in Europe under Klopp’s tutelage – but suffered defeat in two European finals. The pressure was there, although the players weren't showing it as they warmed up at the Wanda Metropolitano on the day before the game. They were relaxed and smiling, but the training was also focused and intense – a blend achieved in part thanks to the energetic and enthusiastic approach of first-team coach Pepijn Lijnders.
If anything, it was the supporters who were more anxious and nervous as they arrived in Madrid by the tens of thousands. They didn’t show it either, though, instead partying in Madrid, mixing with locals and Tottenham fans, together creating a brilliant spectacle and atmosphere. But after so many near-misses, a defeat would have been extremely tough to take.
However, there was also an understanding that this team are not fulfilling the ridiculous narrative of being bottlers. Supporters who have watched this squad develop know that they are now ready to deliver – proven, emphatically, in the semi-final win over Barcelona. Just as Klopp had outlined in the week before the final when referencing the two semi-final ties: “In the days between Barcelona [games], I would say nobody believed in this team more than the team themselves.”
Defeat would have been excruciating for supporters who'd witnessed a club come back from the dead – almost literally, thanks to the cancerous ownership of Tom Hicks and George Gillett – to almost return to the peak of European football.
Since Istanbul, there’d been defeats in four major finals, and three Premier League campaigns that resulted in finishing second. And if Liverpool were the bridesmaids, Klopp was the jilted bride, having lost his last six major finals. But the manager had a plan to make them more. In the words of Klopp himself, Liverpool went from “being the not most attractive girl in the village to a supermodel”. They just needed some shiny jewels to adorn them.
The seeds for Liverpool’s success were sewn long before this season. It has been a gradual process under Fenway Sports Group’s ownership, from stabilising the club, appointing key men behind the scenes, upgrading the stadium and then, crucially, appointing a manager who was capable of carrying the weight of expectation and not being daunted by the history of the club.
Klopp immediately galvanised the fanbase, before systematically upgrading the whole team. No player who started his first game in charge, away to Tottenham in October 2015, did so in the Champions League final against Spurs. Every position has been gradually upgraded. Signings were identified thanks to incredible work that goes on behind the scenes.
Those signings bought into what Klopp and Liverpool are seeking to achieve. More recent arrivals have witnessed the progress being made and can see where the club is heading. They can see a fanbase that will give everything to help their side. A community that wants success more than most.
After glory in Madrid, players had tears in their eyes and looked on in amazement as an estimated 750,000 supporters lined the streets of the city to welcome back their heroes. Derided by some outside of the club, the marketing slogan of ‘This Means More’ was actually there on display, and proven prophetic. This, for Liverpool, does mean more.
— FourFourTwo (@FourFourTwo) June 3, 2019
It means being able to move on from the Gerrard slip, Karius in Kiev, Ramos on Salah, and mockery for achieving 97 points but not winning the league.
It means Liverpool are well and truly on their way to being back on their fucking perch.
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