Champions League final preview: The Liverpool view
Ahead of Saturday’s Champions League final in Kiev, we take a look at five-time European champions Liverpool, who have made the final in their first knockout stage appearance since 2009. Jamie Braidwood previews.
Route to the final
Liverpool’s journey to Kiev started in the Champions League play-off round in August, making them the first team since Bayern Munich in 2012 to reach the final after starting from that stage. After finishing 4th in the Premier League last season, Liverpool faced 4th-placed German side Hoffenheim and in their 6-3 aggregate win offered a sign of what was to come in Europe this season.
Following a 2-1 away win in Germany, Liverpool blew Hoffenheim away at Anfield, scoring three times in the opening 21 minutes to put the match beyond doubt. Even then, back in August, Liverpool showed their ability to quickly rack up goals, playing breathless, scintillating attacking football, led by their star front three of Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah.
They took their attacking form into the group stages, scoring 23 goals, second only to Paris Saint-Germain, to finish ahead of Sevilla, Spartak Moscow and Maribor. Scoring the goals wasn’t a concern but Liverpool’s tendency to concede at the other end was. This was highlighted by their 3-3 away draw in Seville – a game in which Liverpool were 3-0 up at half time.
The signing of Dutch defender Virgil van Dijk for £75 million following Philippe Coutinho’s £140m departure to Barcelona addressed that concern, as Liverpool hit their stride going into the knockout stage. The Reds put five past Porto in Portugal to set up an all-English tie quarter-final against runaway Premier League champions Manchester City.
Against City, Liverpool again flew out of the traps at Anfield, hitting three goals past Pep Guardiola’s side in a 20 minute spell before keeping them out at the other end. In the return leg, Liverpool withheld a first-half City onslaught to go on and win the match 2-1, sealing a 5-1 aggregate win.
AS Roma were next after their surprise quarter-final win over Barcelona. The attention ahead of the first-leg was all on Salah, the Egyptian winger who was signed from Roma the previous summer, and who now was enjoying an unprecedented, record-breaking debut season at Anfield.
Salah scored two brilliant goals to get Liverpool off to another flying start and the home side racked up another three before the 70th minute. Roma came back to make the first leg 5-2 before winning the return 4-2 a week later. The final aggregate score was an incredible 7-6 to Liverpool, who were more dominant over the two legs than the scoreline suggested.
But historically, Liverpool never do things the easy way. Now, a Champions League final against Real Madrid awaits at the end of a campaign that has delighted fans and defied expectations.
When Jurgen Klopp arrived at Liverpool in October 2015, he talked about turning doubters into believers. Here he was, taking over a club who had finished 8th the previous season, had an imbalanced squad and an agitated fan base and telling those supports to trust in him and his vision.
There have been bumps along the way, but Klopp’s impact at Liverpool has been incredible. Here we are now, with Klopp having guided Liverpool to a second consecutive top 4 finish in the Premier League but most importantly, having reached the final in his first Champions League campaign at the club.
Liverpool at their best are the embodiment of how Klopp appears on the touchline; intense, energetic, with fists and teeth clenched tight. They play fast, and loud – the heavy metal football that has been associated with the German for years remains the best way to describe his teams.
Klopp’s Liverpool were good last season, but the addition of Salah has brought even more goals, even more pace and even more quality. Now they are capable of beating any team in the world within a 20 spell – and that is all by design. It’s a rare thing to see a football club and a manager who seem made for each other, but Klopp and Liverpool are an example of it. Adding a sixth European Cup to the Anfield trophy cabinet would make Klopp immortal in the fans’ eyes.
It would also mean a lot to him personally. Since losing in the 2013 Champions League to Bayern Munich when with Borussia Dortmund, Klopp has gone on to lose five major cup finals, including his first two with Liverpool. There wouldn’t be any doubters left at all if he set that record straight.
The one to watch
What more can you say about Mohamed Salah’s first season at Liverpool? He’s scored the 2nd most goals in a single season in Liverpool history, he’s broken the Premier League record for goals scored in a 38 game season, he’s won numerous individual awards and he’s helped his team to a Champions League final.
Salah is extraordinary, it’s as simple as that, and he has also shown in this campaign that he is a player who delivers when it matters; scoring the all-important first away goal in Manchester, crashing in a sublime curling effort to get Liverpool flying in the semi against Roma. It’s currently 44 and counting for the Egyptian, can he make it his night in Rome?
An area for concern
Injuries to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Emre Can and the January departure of Coutinho has left Liverpool’s squad looking extremely thin in recent weeks. Liverpool have made it to the end of the season without any further injuries and their starting 11 is strong but the drop-off in terms of quality to the options on the bench is clear.
Strikers Dominic Solanke and Danny Ings have both scored a league goal recently but still, Real Madrid will not be worried to see either come of the bench. Meanwhile Adam Lallana came off the bench in Liverpool’s final Premier League game of the season but is short of match fitness. The lack of options is a concern as it means Klopp can only really stick to one plan. It would be a serious worry if there were any injuries in the final or if it went to extra-time and fresh legs were suddenly required.
You can read a preview of Liverpool’s Champions League final opponents Real Madrid, here.