Liverpool face Sevilla in the Europa League final in Basel, Switzerland on Wednesday and whether he likes it or not, a pivotal juncture in the Jurgen Klopp era has already arrived.
Klopp, 48, took charge of Liverpool last October and has already led them to two cup finals and an eighth-place finish in the Premier League.
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The latter is hardly cause for celebration but in the past month or two everything has been geared towards winning the Europa League and claiming the UEFA Champions League spot it provides for next season. With estimates claiming around 40,000 Liverpool fans have descended on Basel — don’t forget, St Jakob Park stadium itself only holds just over 38,000 — supporters of the Merseyside club expects.
Liverpool’s love affair with European finals is well known and in their 11 European finals as a club they’ve been victorious on eight occasions, clinching five European Cups. Fans of the Reds believe they’ll add another trophy to the cabinet on Wednesday but pushing over Sevilla, who have won back-to-back Europa League trophies, won’t be easy.
Klopp knows more about final failure than most.
In each of his last four finals he’s come out the loser. He lost two German Cup finals and a UEFA Champions League final with Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool agonizingly lost the Capital One Cup final to Manchester City on penalty kicks in February. Those past experiences may have prepared Klopp well for a defining moment just eight months into his Liverpool career.
Looking back at Klopp’s reign at Anfield so far, it is still a work in progress as the patchy league form has shown. He’s experimented with players, focused heavily on his playing philosophy on the training ground and has prioritized cup competitions over the PL.
When myself and other members of the media spoke to Klopp on his unveiling at Anfield back in October the German coach was adamant he could bring the glory days back. However, he talked about a gradual process, one that would take many years. Yet just a few months in he’s already instilled huge belief that those days are back, especially with famous victories on this Europa League run. With victory over Manchester United and Borussia Dortmund in the Round of 16 and quarterfinals respectively, we saw famous European nights return to Anfield and got a glimpse of what Klopp can achieve.
Liverpool’s fans are connected with the manager and the team and the fanbase believes big things are ahead.
The carrot dangling in front of Liverpool and Klopp’s face is a huge one. Win against Sevilla on Wednesday and they qualify automatically for the 2016-17 UEFA Champions League group stage. Ahead of schedule Klopp will have guided the Reds back to the promised land of the UCL and all of a sudden everything changes. For starters the transfer budget will increase this summer and interest from all kinds of players will come in as they want to play in the UCL under Klopp.
However, should Liverpool lose there will be an air of deflation, a sense of opportunity missed which will linger over the summer months. Defeat would mean no European action at all next season and that last time that happened in 2013-14 things turned out pretty well as they almost won the title. If they don’t win then it’s not doom and gloom but there will be a strong desire to be back in Europe’s elite club competition as soon as they can. With the redevelopment of Anfield in full flow and a young, hungry squad improving under Klopp’s methods, qualification to the UCL would slot everything together much sooner than the enigmatic German could have imagined when he turned up last October.
Klopp knows he’s been handed a huge chance to become an even bigger hero at Anfield than he already is. Can his team grasp it and thrust themselves back into Europe’s elite way ahead of schedule?