We will come to see this European campaign as Jurgen Klopp’s gap year; an unexpected detour around unfamiliar continental venues in readiness for next year’s Champions League return.
That’s Liverpool’s roadmap, in any case.
With respect to Austrian side LASK, the significant milestone of Klopp’s 50th European win as Liverpool’s coach probably deserved a more fitting occasion and more eminent opponent. None of Klopp’s esteemed predecessors won that many. Instead, he and his players understandably took a little time to adjust to their top tier exile.
The Klopp era has witnessed Liverpool rejoicing at the Allianz Arena, San Siro, Etihad and just about everywhere else where they have not been playing against Real Madrid. The twinges of pain this season when the closest the players get to the Champions League anthem is watching Wednesday night fixtures from their team hotel rooms are inevitable.
This is as close a club of the six-time European Cup winner’s stature will ever get to knowing what relegation feels like.
There have been times in recent Liverpool history when Europa League participation felt like a necessary and useful stepping stone. Not now. Liverpool did not need this to evolve into a top-four side again. But here they are, the VIP guests at venues where the hosts scarcely believe Klopp is in town, trying to complete passing sequences on a cabbage patch pitch, the home fans’ resident drummer pounding harder with each LASK attack in one of the biggest fixtures in their history.
The Europa League will not be so demeaned by Klopp, obviously. Should Liverpool win it and complete Klopp’s Anfield silver collection, the celebrations will be fulsome. The small town of Linz where the planned trip to a Dublin final began is a delight and their supporters created an incessant, ferocious noise.
They also gave Liverpool an early scare before normality was restored with what, this season, is becoming a familiar comeback routine.
But it still doesn’t quite sit right that Liverpool were here. This team and their manager are better than Uefa’s second division and their ability to ease through the gears against significant inferior opponents, aided and abetted by the world class players from the bench, spoke to why they are favourites to win the tournament outright.
“Oh yes. I know how the world is. I know that people expect us to fly through the competition,” said Klopp. “But we have to dig into it and that is what we did. It was a massive learning curve tonight.”
Klopp is right that his less experienced players will benefit from game time they would have been denied in Europe’s premier competition.
He suggested before kick-off he would treat the game with equal importance to the Champions League. That was a bluff. His team sheet had a decidedly ‘early rounds of the domestic cups’ feel about it. Not unlike the vibe around the stadium, actually. One almost imagined commentators suggesting ‘this is what fairytales are all about’ as the underdogs momentarily dreamed of a shock to reverberate around the continent.
Klopp’s selection was a mix of risk and reward. Exciting teenager Ben Doak made his European debut, the fourth youngest Liverpool player to do so. There is plenty more to come from him. Ryan Gravenberch also enjoyed valuable game time, and another young talent Stefan Bajectic made his first appearance of the season.
With exuberance came moments of vulnerability.
The Austrians came to party and did so for 56 minutes when they led thanks to Florian Flecker’s 20 yard drive through a crowded penalty area. That provoked as many disbelieving looks from the home fans as Liverpool’s defenders.
Until then, Liverpool were occasionally reverting to the tactics which brought them into the competition, lacking fluency, sometimes outmuscled, and with Darwin Nunez’s goal to chance ratio reverting to a low percentage. He wasted two headers and would have had a tap-in had he read Doak’s clever cross.
Nunez would make amends with the equalising penalty, after which momentum irreversibly shifted in Liverpool’s favour and the introduction of Dominic Szoboszlai and Mohamed Salah affirmed the gulf in class. Luis Diaz and Salah gave the victory a polish which was reflective of the teams’ respective qualities, the Egyptian’s brilliant strike almost routine by his incredible standards.
A 50th win is quite the milestone for Klopp. Granted, the current European formats guarantee more fixtures than Bill Shankly or Bob Paisley were afforded. Rafa Benitez coached Liverpool on 49 victories in European competition.
“Let me say it like this,” said Klopp. “If I still have 50 wins at the end of the group stage I will still be the most successful and everyone will hate it.”
There is no danger of Klopp failing to add to the tally in the next five games. If he can register his 60th by the end of the season, these unintended excursions will be worth it.