Last night was a bitter pill to swallow. There’s no good way to be bounced out of Europe, but I suppose with a little more time we can feel as if we at least acquitted ourselves well.
The Reds probably should have gone through last night. But the margins at this level are razor-thin. Just as we failed to advance last night, we could have ended up on the wrong side of the equation numerous times over the past several years. And yet, time after time, we prevailed. Until, shockingly, we didn’t.
However, instead of dwelling on last night’s defeat, I wanted to reflect on how incredible European football has been under Jurgen Klopp. And, in doing so, show gratitude for being privileged as a Liverpool supporter to once again enjoy these magical European nights.
But first, I’d like to start with the dark, pre-Kloppo days. It’s fair to say that Brendan Rodgers certainly didn’t prioritize Europe. We lost in the Europa League Round of 32 in his first campaign. He sent out weakened side away to Real Madrid en route to Champions League Group Stage elimination in 2014/15. And then once again lost in the Round of 32 in the Europa League. And two draws in two to start the 2015/16 Europa League campaign threatened to see Liverpool out of Europe altogether.
When Jurgen Klopp took over a floundering, thoroughly midtable Liverpool side in October 2015, the Europa League seemed like an unwelcome distraction.
Klopp proved us all wrong.
Instead of another lost “rebuilding” campaign, Klopp managed to reach two cup finals, all while instilling a never-say-die attitude among players and fans. He created a virtuous feedback loop, where the supporters wouldn’t give up on the team before the last kick of the match, and the players would give supporters a reason to believe that miracles were possible.
We were inconsistent throughout 2015/16, but we got enough glimpses of what a Kloppo was building on Merseyside to give us all hope. A sleeping giant was stirring. The rest of England and Europe were not yet aware of what was yet to come. But they would, soon.
Klopp & Co. managed to not only get out of the Europa League group in 2015/16, but they topped it. They saw off Augsburg. They dominated Manchester United at Anfield and then silenced Old Trafford with a knockout blow.
And then came Dortmund. Klopp’s former side in the Europa League quarterfinals. This match, perhaps more than any other, turned fans from doubters to believers. It was a nightmare start: down 2-0 within 9 minutes, and then down 3-1 after 57 minutes. We needed an Anfield Miracle.
A low Philippe Coutinho curler made it 3-2 after 66 minutes. Twelve minutes later, Mamadou Sakho turned home a corner to level terms. But Liverpool, out on away goals, needed another.
Cross to the back post.
Dejan Lovren nods it in.
91 minutes gone.
Sadly, despite taking an early lead on one of the all-time great consolation goals by Daniel Sturridge, this Liverpool side just didn’t have enough in the tank to get over the line. That squad, held together by hope and duct tape, just wasn’t good enough.
Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool would have to find a few gems in the transfer market and wait another year for a chance to qualify for the Champions League.
That summer, Liverpool welcomed Sadio Mane, Georginio Wijnaldum, and Joel Matip. The 2016/17 season was important for Liverpool’s development under Klopp, but is largely forgotten now. There were no cup finals. Our league, League Cup, and FA Cup campaigns were all essentially over after a bad January.
The Reds recovered just enough to qualify for the Champions League. Barely.
Though, as the halftime whistle approached on the final day, it looked like this might not be the case. Anfield was nervous as relegation side Middlesbrough held on to a 0-0 scoreline. And then Klopp signing Gini Wijnaldum strolled into the box and rocketed a shot into the absolute top bin. The shot, essentially, throttled the Reds back into Europe’s top competition.
Liverpool still had some work ahead of them. Fourth place only ensured a playoff round, and the Reds were unlucky to draw Bundesliga side Hoffenheim. But even this challenge presented an opportunity, specifically for the young, largely unheralded academy product Trent Alexander-Arnold. It was Trent’s phenomenal free kick that broke the deadlock in Germany. And when Liverpool got back to Anfield, the home side was rampant. They ran out 6-3 winners over two legs.
Europe still didn’t pay Liverpool much attention. But they should have.
Liverpool, with the new addition of Mohamed Salah, were blistering in attack. They scored 7 goals against Maribor. And another 7 against Spartak Moscow.
Our Champions League campaign, just the second of the last decade, could have gone off the rails before the knockout rounds even began. Philippe Coutinho finally forced his way out to Barcelona. But as the Brazilian exited, defender Virgil van Dijk entered, and the team as a whole was stronger and better balanced for it.
Once into the knockouts, they saw off Porto 5-0. With all five goals coming away from home.
And then came Manchester City. The 100-point, unstoppable Manchester City. But Pep and City never experienced Anfield like that. It was 3-0 within 30 minutes, and 5-1 to Liverpool after 180 minutes played.
The 2017/18 side wasn’t content with just seeing off their domestic rivals. They beat Roma 5-2 in the first leg—a scoreline practically unheard of in a European semifinal—before clinging on to get through on aggregate in Rome.
We know what happened next:
The pain and heartbreak of Kiev.
Signing Alisson in the summer.
Alisson saving our bacon against Napoli in the last group stage match of 2018/19.
Beating Bayern Munich 3-1 in their gaff in the Round of 16.
Seeing off Porto. Again.
Corner taken quickly. Origi. 4-0.
And the of course, we won it in Madrid. Six times. Let’s talk about six baby.
It has been an incredible ride under Klopp. Three European finals out of three. Now three out of four. We’ll be back next year.
Up the European Royalty Reds.