Anfield. A stadium with great history, made more mythic by scores of memorable European nights. To acknowledge its power, its force, its influence, and the other intangibles that bear down on those tasked to contest on the pitch is not to show weakness. Recognising the strengths of one’s opponent is often a vital first step in formulating a coherent plan for victory. Indeed, there must be due consideration to one’s own abilities in the pursuit of triumph, but disregarding circumstances that can be your very undoing is as risky as it is naive.
When Julian Nagelsmann—Hoffenheim’s precocious coach who only entered his thirties over the summer—said he was not "in awe of Liverpool" ahead of a second leg at Anfield, some saw it as underestimating a storied club, one that has repeatedly proven its appetite for fabled European nights, particularly at Anfield. It caused quite a stir among many Liverpool fans, enormously proud and fully appreciative of a long tradition in European football with Anfield at its core.
Did Nagelsmann underestimate Liverpool? Was acceding to the fact that Liverpool is "a big name with a lot of history" enough? How easy is it so strike a balance between transmitting the requisite confidence to a group of players that go into a game as underdogs already at a disadvantage from the first leg and ensuring those tasked to represent him on the field are wary of the variety of dangers that lie in wait?
The extraordinarily youthful coach proclaimed that his team "can deal with fast attackers" before witnessing Jürgen Klopp’s players rip a high line apart. Liverpool were swift and sure in attacking transitions against an opponent that completely played into the hands of the home side. Goals flowed, Klopp bellowed, Anfield rocked, the visitors were intimidated, and a precocious coach was at a loss on the touchline.
"My thought at the time was 'well, this could be going better'. The reason was we didn't start the match well at all," the 30-year-old trainer revealed. "The first couple of minutes were already very challenging. They got a free-kick on the edge of the area, we made two or three poor tackles, the crowd could sense that and really got behind Liverpool and you know that's how atmosphere builds here.
"We were running around like headless chickens. The team showed a bit too emotion and we left too many gaps. The additional factor was that in the first 30 minutes there were two or three players who weren't on the pitch at all. If we'd played the way we did against anyone, we'd have lost 4-2.
"Liverpool played the way they did in the first leg and scored the goals exactly the way they do in the Premier League. The difference was in the first leg we played well and tonight we didn't."
Success is often built on the ashes of failure, and for Nagelsmann, this game may be the sobering learning experience needed for future progress. Klopp and Liverpool have been there separately and together, but this season is the correct one to show what knowledge and skill have been accumulated since October 2015 in a season where Champions League football has finally returned to the grandest of all British clubs in European competition.