LIVERPOOL: A confessed admirer of the underdog tales of Robin Hood and Rocky Balboa, Jurgen Klopp is probably uncomfortable with Liverpool’s status as strong favourites in Tuesday’s Champions League semi-final, first leg against Roma.
However, it is a testament to how far the German has revitalised a sleeping giant on the European stage that Liverpool’s first appearance in the Champions League last four for a decade is met with such expectation.
It hasn’t always been a such a smooth ride since Klopp arrived an Anfield two-and-a-half years ago.
Indeed, even in the aftermath of a 5-1 quarter-final thrashing of hitherto tournament favourites Manchester City, Klopp warned the clock was ticking on his promise to deliver a trophy within four years of taking charge.
Early in his reign Klopp at times bemoaned the subdued atmosphere in modern English grounds, even at the mythical Anfield, compared to his grounding in Germany’s Bundesliga.
By contrast, Anfield will be at fever pitch on Tuesday to try and inspire the five-time European champions back to club’s football’s biggest game in the Kiev final on May 26.
“The Champions League nights are special for the fans too,” Liverpool’s talisman Mohamed Salah — who has scored an incredible 41 goals in his debut season for the club — told CNN. “You can feel it on the streets.
“The atmosphere in that first game against Man City was the first time I had really seen something like that.”
Premier League champions City’s evisceration by a three-goal blitz in 19 first-half minutes was just another chapter in a long history of famous European nights at Anfield.
“The Liverpool fans, they all believe ‘this is our competition’,” recognised City boss Pep Guardiola afterwards.
But it came on the back of a rallying cry by Klopp for his players not to be intimidated by Liverpool’s history in the competition, but to make memories they too will be remembered for.
A mirror image of their manager
Liverpool’s high-energy style that even City couldn’t cope with is a mirror image of their manager on the touchline.
“If something is important to me, I cannot hide my feelings. When I’m happy everyone can see and it’s the same when I’m angry,” Klopp told The Big Interview podcast.
However, Klopp’s revival of Liverpool has come from far more than rabble rousing.
His fluid 4-3-3 system has brought the best out of a prolific front three of Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino, who have combined for 83 goals this season.
“I think Jurgen is a master to buy players with what he really needs for the way he wants to play,” said Guardiola, who has suffered more defeats in his career to Klopp than any other manager.
Most impressively of all, Klopp’s management has also ensured that Liverpool’s flurry of goals hasn’t dried up despite losing Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona for £142 million (US$199 million) in January and not buying a natural replacement.
Instead just over half of that fee was spent on Virgil Van Dijk to bolster a defence that often let Klopp down in his first two years in England.
Since the £75 million Dutchman was recruited, Liverpool have conceded just once in four European outings.
Klopp has also learned from his own mistakes. The intensity of his demands left Liverpool drained in the second-half of last season after a promising start to the campaign.
This season no manager has rotated more than Klopp in the Premier League with the payoff that his side remain the sole English representatives in the last four.