LIVERPOOL: The last time Liverpool faced the might of Real Madrid, then manager Brendan Rodgers named a second-string side so impossible did it seem that England’s most successful club on the European stage could compete with the self-proclaimed “kings of Europe”.
Madrid won 1-0 at the Santiago Bernabeu that November night in 2014, two weeks after they had inflicted Liverpool’s heaviest ever European home defeat by cruising to a 3-0 victory at Anfield.
Such was the gulf between the sides that even a former Manchester United hero Cristiano Ronaldo was applauded off on what used to be enemy territory. Madrid were a class apart rather than a competitor.
Fast-forward three-and-a-half years and Jurgen Klopp has transformed the five-time European champions back into believing they are worthy of their place in a Champions League final when they face Real once more in Kiev on Saturday.
“A lot of things happened since I came in, but the biggest change was how the people changed in the case of how much they like their actual team,” said Klopp on Monday.
“That is really nice and helped a lot. The boys deserved this. They had an exceptional season, always could be better, but it was really good and a big step in comparison to last year.”
Klopp’s tenure has been far from all plain sailing. He acknowledged even after ousting Premier League champions Manchester City 5-1 on aggregate in the quarter-finals that the clock was ticking on his promise to deliver a trophy in his first four years.
By contrast, since the sides last met, Madrid have won another two Champions Leagues, a La Liga title, two Club World Cups and two European Super Cups.
– Best yet to come –
However, the feeling around Anfield is that Liverpool can now compete with Europe’s elite, and — with Klopp having renewed his contract till 2022 — the best is still to come.
“This could be the start of something special under Klopp, he’s world class,” the last Liverpool captain to lift the Champions League, Steven Gerrard, told BT Sport after a rollercoaster 7-6 aggregate semi-final win over Roma.
Klopp’s role as a rabble-rousing, bear-hugging cheerleader on the sidelines makes the 50-year-old a colourful and loveable character for fans, players and media alike.
However, the headlines he creates often hide a keen eye for the tactical details that count.
None more so than how Klopp didn’t let the loss of arguably his best player in Philippe Coutinho for a Premier League record sale of £142 million ($194 million, 160 million euros) in the middle of the season derail Liverpool’s road to Kiev.
Coutinho’s departure robbed Klopp of competition for places and ammunition for his front three. Yet, Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino continued to thrive, combining for 90 goals this season.
Behind them Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain came to the fore, scoring a stunning goal against City in a 3-0 first leg win at Anfield in the last eight.
When the England international’s season was ended by a cruciate knee ligament injury against Roma in the semi-finals, Georginio Wijnaldum stepped in to score what proved to be the winning goal in the tie in Rome.
“I think Jurgen is a master to buy players with what he really needs for the way he wants to play,” said City boss Pep Guardiola, who has suffered more defeats in his career to Klopp than any other manager.
In Klopp’s first season Liverpool fell short in the League Cup and Europa League finals to Manchester City and Sevilla.
His second campaign delivered Champions League football for just the second time in eight years. His third has so far solidified Liverpool’s status as a Champions League club with another top-four finish and run to the final.
“They don’t hang silver medals at Melwood (Liverpool’s training ground),” Klopp warned after an emotional night in Rome three weeks ago, a fact he knows only too well having lost his last five finals at Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund.
He has made Liverpool a force to be reckoned with again. The final step to go from contenders to champions is what remains to be taken.