Sunday, June 28, 2020

King Klopp ends the Long March

HISTORY CHIMES AS THE RED DROUGHT FINISHES

Liverpool's long wait is over. 30 years of hurt are no more. The Reds are kings of England again.


For those of us who remember their previous reign, three empty domestic decades are all the more astonishing.

Liverpool felt almost unbeatable when I was young. It was a given they would win the title and demolish all European challengers too, although for some reason they usually stumbled in the F.A. Cup.

Whenever my team Nottingham Forest played them I prayed for a miracle but it almost never came. Liverpool just seemed impossible to beat. Their mesmeric passing, whether short or long, bewitched other sides but it was their intensity which set them apart.

Even if other sides took the lead, Liverpool seemed to draw on high-octane reserves to blitz the opposition, an extra gear no other side possessed.

Roared on by Anfield, a near-perfect stadium for atmosphere, the Reds kept marching on. The passion of the players was matched by the stirring regional identity of the Scousers. It was no wonder they wore red - the tint of passion, blood, and fervour. Bill Shankly was the prophet who found the magic formula his successors imbibed.

In an era when Liverpool the city was gripped by industrial decline and social breakdown the shining success and endless victories of the football club proved a tonic and a head-scratching flip side.

No one could live with them home or abroad. From 1977 to 1985 the Reds reached five European Cup finals, winning four of them.


Heysel then kept them out of Europe for five years and it was a pity for European football their 1988 championship-winning side never got the chance to take on the continent's best.

When they came back under Graeme Souness, they were not the force they had been before. 

The unbroken spell kindled by Shanks and Bob Paisley had dried up and the spell was only found again in 2019.

Liverpool's magic flared up again with a UEFA Cup win in 2001 under Gerard Houllier before Rafael Benitez recaptured their Champions Cup crown in 2005, a feat repeated by Jurgen Klopp last year.

Inevitably those with memories of great sides will try to compare Klopp's 2020 vintage to those of the '70s and '80s but this is a bit of a fool's errand. Football gets better every year so Klopp's current crop would defeat all previous Liverpool teams.

The German has cleverly assembled a backbone of platinum players: £75 million for Virgil Van Dijk was the world record price for a defender but has been one of the best Premier League investments, on a par with Leicester City buying N'Golo Kanté or Manchester United bagging Eric Cantona and Peter Schmeichel for modest sums.

Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane, and Mohamed Salah have become as feared an attacking trident as any and buccaneering Scottish left-back Andrew Robertson has been outstanding too. Klopp's backroom staff are top class and his love of intensity, the gegenpressing we first saw at Borussia Dortmund, has translated seamlessly into Liverpool's attacking front-foot tradition.

They are the most worthy winners. English and European Champions and World Club Cup holders to boot. It does not get much better than that. As with Pep Guardiola's grand slam of trophies at Barcelona, the challenge now for Klopp is to sustain the success and not rest on his laurels.

Benitez's miracle of Istanbul was supposed to have ended the hoodoo and ushered in a new age, but it kept stalling. Klopp has a stronger winning formula this time around.

He is a victor, blessed with charisma, intelligence, and an ability to get others to follow him. He also comes across as a fair man, not a mad genius. 

As with Gareth Southgate's statesmanlike performance during the 2018 World Cup, Klopp's unifying spirit and strong leadership skills stand in stark contrast to the nation's flailing politicians, and many wish he was in charge of Britain as well as Liverpool F.C.

When asked in March about the Covid-19 lockdown, however, he was fast to distance himself from politics. Render unto Caesar...

Klopp works wonders but is still only human. He will nevertheless go down in history as the man who ended Liverpool's long wait for the title and that is enough for now.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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