Jürgen Klopp straight-batted every question relating to what Champions League qualification would represent for Liverpool on the basis it has not been achieved, although by mentioning Basel, Kiev and Madrid alongside preparations for Crystal Palace he gave a clear indication of what it would mean for him. Sunday is another European final in Klopp’s eyes, with vindication the immediate prize for a punishing campaign.
In some respects vindication has already arrived for a manager who maintained there were simple, solvable explanations for Liverpool’s poor defence of the Premier League title while others were proclaiming the end of an era.
His team arrive at the final day in the form of champions – collecting 23 points in a nine-game unbeaten run that has transformed a top-four finish from a distant to a distinct possibility. They started the season in title-winning form too, taking 31 points from the opening 14 matches despite the early losses of Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez, but after the 7-0 defeat of Palace on 19 December came relegation form. The next 14 games yielded only 12 points and Liverpool have been clawing their way back since.
Now Trent Alexander-Arnold is assisting again, Roberto Firmino is scoring again and the mentality to fight to the last in search of crucial goals is evident once more. With Fabinho providing protection since Liverpool’s last Premier League defeat on 7 March, Thiago Alcântara has settled into the midfielder recognisable from Bayern Munich.
There is, finally, stability in central defence, where Nat Phillips and Rhys Williams have formed an unlikely but effective partnership. It is a fair argument that Phillips should have had a regular role earlier when Fabinho and Jordan Henderson were plugging holes at the expense of a functioning midfield. Klopp, however, believed the inexperienced duo needed more work on the training ground before being handed responsibility. That decision has paid off too.
“The thing about a season is you cannot cut off the negative parts from the positive parts and say that we are nearly there,” Klopp said of his team’s mid-season collapse. “We don’t see it like that but when we lost our centre-halves, all of them pretty much, we broke our leg but we could still win games. It was not always in the most convincing fashion but we were still winning games and scoring.
“Then we had to – and we had to at that time – make midfielders into centre-halves and it broke our spine. Then the whole setup was gone. The young boys were not ready to play at centre-half so the midfielders had to play there. We lost some rhythm all of a sudden but not all the time. Let me remember one game in this very negative period that we had, the game away at Leicester. I never lost a game like that before, ever. I don’t know exactly what the number is for the games I have managed or coached but it was so strange. That day we were clearly the better side, played really good football and lost. So when we had these games it was like: ‘OK, we cannot do a lot of things differently next time.’
“A football team is like an orchestra where plenty of people work together and if you lose one piece you might be able to still do it, but if you lose two or three then it becomes difficult. Especially in this league where everybody performs with such an incredibly high-intensity level. And then you lose contact with the football you want to play or you are used to playing. Then you need time to settle again and obviously we found our way out, which is absolutely great. So whatever happens on Sunday, we found our way out.
“It is how I said before: this year, with the amount of injuries we have had, it was not the year to become champions. No chance. For nobody. As good as they are, if [Manchester] City have their three centre-halves out, no [they don’t win the league]. Three centre-halves of [Manchester] United, no. For the whole season pretty much too, that is how it is. We have fought back a bit, accepted the difficulties and made the best of it. And if we win on Sunday, and if we qualify for the Champions League then we made the best of it.”
Without a late U-turn over his contract, Georginio Wijnaldum will make his final Liverpool appearance on Sunday in what will be Roy Hodgson’s last game as Crystal Palace manager and, according to the former Liverpool manager, his farewell to top-flight football. Sideshows will remain precisely that, insists Klopp, who believes the experience Liverpool have gained from European finals or having to beat Middlesbrough to secure Champions League qualification on the final day in 2017 will ensure complete focus.
“We are in a situation that this game is so decisive and it is absolutely great news,” he said. “It is almost like if you qualify for a final everything is perfect but you have to play the final, don’t forget that. We’ve experienced both ends of playing a final as a club and as a team. You would not ask before our other finals: ‘Whatever happens, are you already happy with the way to Kiev, Basel or Madrid?’ Obviously I would have said yes, but let’s wait for the final piece. That makes all the difference and that is what we are thinking about.”