It is scarcely believable, given the apocalyptic lows to which the club had sunk since the greed and neglect of the parasitical Tom Hicks and George Gillett laid waste to a club enjoying a period of European preeminence, but tonight Anfield will play host once more to Champions League football. Kenny Dalglish, the club's éminence grise, began the recovery when called upon, restored a modicum of pride and arrested the parlous slide towards the bottom that had seemed to be Liverpool's fate under Roy Hodgson's catastrophic stewardship. The Scot's contribution, fashionably derided or ignored by some, must be acknowledged gratefully by more thoughtful fans.
However, a mere two seasons after taking the helm at the club, Dalglish's successor, Brendan Rodgers, finds himself about to walk out onto one of Europe's grandest stages alongside the exciting young team he has built -- a place where legendary victories over the likes of St Etienne and Real Madrid have seeped into the very fabric of the stadium. As the Antrim man and his charges absorb the passion and expectancy of the crowd, the delightfully overwrought pomposity of Tony Britten's arrangement of GF Handel's music will reverberate around a floodlit Anfield. We're back, you see, and it feels good -- back amongst Die Meister, Die Besten and Les Grandes Équipes. This is Liverpool's proper place.
Rodgers was far from uniformly welcomed upon his arrival, and the initial transfer window farrago coupled with some sketchy results had our many kneejerkers howling with impatient disdain. He was a fraud, a snake-oil salesman and a charlatan. He didn't get the club. It was too big for him. He'd won nothing. He was David Brent with a seductive lilting brogue, but quickly, things changed. Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge added guile and goals from their arrival at the start of 2013 and then, in only the 41 year old's second campaign, his emergent side challenged the nouveau riche monsters of Manchester City for the title right to the last day. Indeed, it was only a series of unfortunate events which saw the petro-wealthy Mancunian club wrest the trophy out of the Liverbird's talons.
The inevitable ramification of this remarkable progression is some fairly spectacular revisionism from some and an embarrassing volte face from Rodgers' many detractors. Oh, I always supported him, don't ya know? It was those other guys, with the sniping and the grumbling. Not me. Nope. Less helpfully, the heady success of last year's Premier League campaign has created a new cocktail of hope and assumption that has proved burdensome to teams in the past. Rodgers' response has been to draft in a huge amount of talent, partially because of the loss of Uruguay's celebrated flesh nibbler but primarily because he knew that this season it would not be acceptable to have only the lamentable likes of Victor Moses and Iago Aspas as go-to guys on a cold Wednesday night in the Santiago Bernabeu.
The four results of this new campaign have been a less than homogeneous bunch. A not-so-impressive win, an unfortunate loss, a rousing victory and a dispiriting capitulation have left Liverpool with a mere six points from the twelve available. There are, of course, mitigating circumstances and excuses aplenty but desperately grasping for justifications is not a part of Liverpool's proud tradition and Brendan Rodgers has bought into that fully. His demeanour, throughout some serious setbacks and in the face of almost constant criticism, has been relentlessly, almost belligerently upbeat, so it is no surprise to see him accentuate the positive and draw attention to the achievement of dining once again at Europe's top table.
"Our excitement to again be playing Champions League football isn’t a 'giddy’ excitement," insisted the Anfield boss. "We are not tourists in this competition -- we believe it is where we belong and where we should be playing. We are Liverpool, we are five times winners of the European Cup and we are synonymous with its best traditions. Our players are excited by the challenges ahead, not daunted by them.
"I had an experience of a Champions League final in Moscow," he continued. "I remember walking out of the tunnel when the teams were coming out and I was behind them. I was picturing myself as the manager in a Champions League final. I was putting myself in that position and what it might be like. So when we were walking out I was framing the mindset that one day, if this was to happen, then I will have been here before. At that time in my mind I was preparing towards being the manager. With all the experiences of games in that period, they all helped me because in my mind I was looking at the game and making decisions as a manager."
"There have been many very good coaches that have never had the opportunity to work [in the Champions League]. I feel totally relaxed at the level and around the big games. This is it. I have worked all my life as a coach. "I have been able to sample it in a second position really from a coaching perspective so I know the dynamics around the Champions League and the excitement it brings to everyone involved. It’s something that I have really, really wanted to experience as a coach. At 41 to be able to get the chance to do it is really young but it’s something I’m really looking forward to."
In one fell swoop, Rodgers, callous unfeeling cad that he is, has managed to make your scribbler, an Irishman of an identical vintage to the Liverpool gaffer, feel a touch despondent about his life's toil to date. It is indeed an attainment of note for such a young man (work with me here, I'm feeling fragile) to be leading a side very much in his own image onto the ultimate club stage. All seems set fair for the Carnlough native to take another of the quantum leaps that have characterised his tenure thus far. Provided qualification is achieved again, and this will be no small victory in itself, Liverpool's fans will be tolerant of hesitant Premier League form, if their new heroes are cutting a dash during their midweek appointments with the continent's finest. As ever, Rodgers tempers his own effusiveness with a note of caution. His team, he insists, are not the finished article but their work to date has warranted their inclusion amongst the finest.
"We’re building here and still a work in progress in many aspects of the football team and the club but it’s very important for us to really enjoy it and embrace everything and look to ensure we stay in it," he averred. "It’s something we will expect as a group. We aim to be the best. Sustaining the club in this competition is important. It hits home as soon as you actually see ourselves back in the Champions League how much it can actually be missed. We have earned the right to be there, that’s the important thing."
Stepping onto the famous turf tonight, Liverpool's players will be in no doubt as to what it means to the supporters to once more revel in the cachet of the Champions League. There is a connection between the club and the famous old trophy that is not rivalled by many clubs and the ardent fervour that can be generated within the confines of the old ground is the nonpareil. As is always the way, certain players will assume a greater responsibility than others tonight. Steven Gerrard, who has famously hoisted the trophy, will remain the soul of the club on the pitch but his newly elected vice-captain, Jordan Henderson, will no doubt also rise to the occasion yet again. His development has been one of the real joys of the last few seasons and his manager, once dubious, now holds him in the highest esteem.
"Jordan and Stevie are the moral compass of our group, how they conduct themselves on and off the field, how they train, how they work," Rodgers said. "There’s a great story of him joining here, when he came in and had a difficult season. The first summer I came here he had the opportunity to leave. I did not push him out or ask him to go. He wanted to stay. He has really grown in confidence. You see now for club and country he holds himself really well, he’s got a great stature and I think he will be around here for years to come."
Here we are, then. Today, we make no apologies for being shamelessly one-eyed. Liverpool are in the Champions League again and all is right with the world. Let us hope that Rodgers' team led by the "moral compass" provided by Henderson and Gerrard can do itself justice and that Ludogorets have the good grace to know that Liverpool fans, thoroughly and selfishly absorbed in their own hope and excitement, expect them to play the role of plucky but conquered opposition. It's going to be emotional.