Over two decades predictions of Liverpool’s demise have been numerous. They were a gently fading institution that would go the way of red phone boxes.
The only dawns they knew were false ones. So here they are in Rome with the world’s most expensive defender and a chief goalscorer who would probably fetch £200 million.
And a 5-2 first-leg lead over Roma, which followed the 5-1 aggregate win over Manchester City, the new Premier League champions who have scored 102 times and amassed 93 points from 35 fixtures. A mini-exodus has struck the Champions League semi-finalists here, with Jurgen Klopp’s assistant, Zeljko Buvac, now detached from the operation and Steven Gerrard reportedly on the verge of taking over at Rangers. Any other club would be in shock, but Liverpool continue along their gilded path to Kiev.
Their 100th game in the Champions League returns them to the ground where they won this competition for the fourth time in eight years, with a team of Grobbelaar, Neal, Lawrenson, Hansen, Kennedy, Johnston (Nicol 69), Lee, Souness, Whelan, Dalglish (Robinson 93) and Rush. They also seek to end a comparative barren spell in club football’s marquee event that stretches back to the 2008 defeat by Chelsea, which ended a run of seven successive semi-final wins.
In the intervening years, City and Manchester United especially have created an age of stratospheric spending, and Liverpool’s mission was seen by many as a grim struggle just to keep up. The departures of Luis Suarez, Javier Mascherano, Xabi Alonso and most recently Philippe Coutinho seemed to mark them out as a stepping stone club living off history.
Now, Klopp can walk into a Stadio Olimpico press room (with a “wow’ to denote surprise at the size of the audience) not as the manager of a side finagling its way through Europe but as the boss of a lopsided second-leg.
“We are here to fight for our dreams,” he can say, knowing that Liverpool hold this tie by the throat, and that another diligent display will see his team through to the finale in Ukraine.
By no stretch can Liverpool be said to be on a ‘good cup run’. They are the leading scorers in this year’s Champions League with 38, a record for an English club, with 28 of those going to their lethal front three.
‘Boring’ James Milner, dismissed as a journeyman, and prompter of groans when his name appears on an England team-sheet, has delivered a competition-record nine assists.
This is a side with chemistry, identity and momentum. In one sense it has nothing to do with 1984, the miracle of Istanbul (2005) or any other great tradition, except perhaps the Anfield decibel count. There is no scientific evidence to show that experience or ‘history’ passes through a club’s water supply from one generation to the next. Yes, players can read and hear about past heroics, but they are no use when Kevin De Bruyne or David Silva is coming at you. Or Edin Dzeko.
Klopp knows this better than anyone. “The story of Liverpool in Rome is fantastic but nobody thinks it helps that our grandfathers won here. It’s about creating history,” he said.
All the questions were about “nights like tomorrow,” and “big European nights” but there is nothing to gain for Klopp from adding to this mysticism (the questions are fair). “I don’t think it helps a lot,” he said. And: “We don’t have to make it bigger than it is.”
True. It could hardly be bigger – even without history’s train attached.
This European flowering comes two years after Klopp’s first Liverpool team were taken to school by Sevilla in a Europa League final in Basel. The progress since has been dramatic. This is a club remember that has not won the English league title for 28 years, but could end up reaching three Champions League finals in 13 years (2005, 2007 and now).
A 3-0 Roma victory would send the praise up in flames. Liverpool would sit with Barcelona in the gallery of clubs who came to Rome protecting a big lead and blew it. Equally Liverpool’s goalscoring record in Europe renders it unthinkable that Roma will shut them out. The irresistible style of Liverpool’s attacking protects them from all churlishness by fans of other clubs. Nobody can question their presence in Rome as hot favourites to reach Kiev. No one can accuse them of fiddling their way through. Klopp’s men are uniting around a grand idea, an animating spirit, and seeing how far it can take them.
Everyone must be careful. On the pitch: Liverpool’s back-line. Off it, the supporters crossing the Tiber. This is not a march back to 1984 but a step into a potentially vibrant future.