In the space of about twenty minutes at Anfield, Liverpool had made quite the statement to anyone watching the fourth-placed teams in the Premier League and Bundesliga contest for a place in the groups stages of the Champions League. It was Liverpool that reached the illustrious and lucrative land of milk and honey, replete with other potential benefits on offer for Jürgen Klopp and his group.
There are times when too much importance is attributed to a single game, but look at the financial ramifications of qualifying from the play-off round. Liverpool earned €2 million by winning on Wednesday and a further €12.7 million for participating in the group stages. There is €1.5 million awarded for every win and €500,000 for every draw against Sevilla, Spartak, or Maribor. Qualification for the last 16 earns Merseyside’s finest brings in €6 million in prize money. Liverpool probably need at least three wins and a draw to qualify, amounting to €5 million. In this minimum expectation scenario, a total of €25.7 million should be expected by Klopp ensuring his players do the needful.
Beyond financial considerations that relate only to prize money and haven’t taken into account matchday revenue, merchandising, and other ancillary benefits, Liverpool have returned to a competition that has been difficult to reach this decade. This season’s campaign in Europe’s premier competition will only be the club’s second in the past seven seasons—a record that simply shames this grand and storied club. In the second season of the top six era, however, five of England’s sinister six have accomplished what was believed to be absolutely necessary: Champions League qualification. Only Arsenal, under the Premier League’s urbane elder statesman in Arsène Wenger, failed to reach the promised land where finances are bolstered and elite reputations are forged.
To vanquish Hoffenheim in such a stirring manner was notable as Liverpool had secured fourth spot by only a point, conceded a penalty against Middlesbrough in the final game of the season at 0-0, conceded a penalty in the first leg at the Rhein-Neckar-Arena when the game was goalless, became the first team to win away to Hoffenheim in 15 months, and secured a group stage berth by subsequently shredding Nagelsmann’s side with a heady concoction of pace, movement, and counter pressing. It was a performance that did justice to the club’s great name forever tied to Shankly, Paisley, Fagan, Dalglish, and Gerrard.
In some ways, it was Liverpool’s European equivalent of beating Arsenal 4-3 at Anfield. That was the game that showcased both the attacking power and defensive frailties within the team that Klopp had constructed. That season would go on to underline these qualities as Liverpool spent the first half of the season looking like title challengers and potential Premier League champions before certain realities arose as 2016 gave way to 2017. Even so, what a game that was. Arsenal’s second and third goals came after Liverpool had done enough to secure three points, just as Hoffenheim’s two goals arrived after it was all too late. Those warnings, however, did not avert the maddening 4-3 defeat to Bournemouth at Dean Court and this season’s 3-3 draw against Watford FC.
Liverpool seem to be as sharp in attack—even sharper with the addition of Mohamed Salah—yet as defensively vulnerable as ever. Errors, set pieces, tracking runners, and a worrying suscpetibility to counter attacks continue to plague this exciting team. Perfection is neither demanded nor sought, but it is not outlandish to expect progress in addressing ills that continue to run through this team’s passionately beating heart. Four games so far, three wins, one clean sheet, ten goals scored, six goals conceded, many familiar moments, and a good start to the season—all without Philippe Coutinho, Naby Keïta, and Virgil van Dijk.
It is uncertain as to whether Liverpool’s relatively succesful start to the campaign damns or credits the club and those tasked with its improvement. Anyone watching on Wednesday night will accede to the reality that Coutinho wanting out of Liverpool is exceedingly different to Van Dijk desiring to step up in his career. Liverpool were taking the fourth best team in Germany apart to dine at Europe’s top table while Southampton were floundering at home to Wolverhampton Wanderers, a club Liverpool will remember from last season’s miserable FA Cup exit.
No team in the top flight is immune from an undesirable giant killing, but with all due respect to Southampton, Coutinho is being paid £150,000 a week with the task of supplying Sadio Mané, Roberto Firmino, Mohamed Salah, and Daniel Sturridge. While playing with Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez has its undeniable charm along with putting on Barcelona’s famous jersey, he is not being offered the chance of wages and European football unavailable to him at Liverpool. The same simply cannot be said of Virgil van Dijk even if the past decade has shown Barcelona to be a more attractive destination for top players than Liverpool; however, Champions League football and generous wages are currently on offer at Anfield under a high-profile and charismatic manager in Jürgen Klopp.
Arsenal head up to Liverpool boosted by the availability of the relentless Alexis Sánchez, another South American superstar whose future is uncertain with just less than a week remaining in the summer transfer window. Liverpool need more but can head into the first international break with two undoubtedly noteworthy victories by beating Arsenal on Sunday afternoon. Dominic Solanke, Andrew Robertson, and the "Egyptian Messi" have all impressed early on and will need to continue doing so to help Liverpool make the next step.
It would be incredible to see Liverpool start the season in fine fashion with the nagging reminder provided by Watford and Hoffenheim. This is a good squad with talented players under the aegis of one of the world’s best touchline operators; but even in the afterglow of victory against Hoffenheim, Klopp’s players need and deserve assistance to go forth and multiply under the banner of Liverpool FC. Such sentiments will not and should not alter if Arsenal find Anfield a most unwelcoming and unfortunate location.