For those unaware, this year’s Champions League final is in Istanbul. Liverpool already know the route.
“We have nothing better to do at the end of May,” manager Jürgen Klopp suggested prior to taking his place in the knockout stage with the kind of display that suggests they can do it all again.
Anyone doubting Liverpool’s ambition to defend their title to focus on domestic matters now understands that will never be on Klopp’s agenda. He may only have another two-and-a-years on Merseyside. With respect, there is no second to waste in Europe.
Liverpool’s supporters may see this competition as a luxury item until the Premier League is finally won. It is still too valuable to do without, so those tentatively discussing blessings in disguise in the event of a calamity in Austria evidently learned nothing from a year ago.
“Play the kids in Europe. Have a week’s rest between league games,” some said. That can never be the plan at Anfield. There is too much at stake.
Europe saved Liverpool’s season a year ago. It also elevated to the club to such a level the name Kylian Mbappé can be casually dropped into conversations about the next stage of their development, and those sniggering at the back are kidding themselves if they do not believe it a serious consideration, certainly from a sporting perspective even if the finances make it a challenge.
Demeaned status – and let’s not kid ourselves Europa League is anything but – compromises that. Liverpool’s revenues have been swelled by on-field success, so while missing out on a windfall worth anywhere between £40-£60 million will not have the banks on the phone as they were to Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jr when the club dropped out of the group stages in December, 2009, it would be the first serious reversal of fortune for Fenway Sports Group.
Those lost European finals hurt more, but they did not undermine the idea of Liverpool moving forward, ever closer to their goal. And plenty of cash was made on the back of those losses, reinvested to make the side stronger. There would be no such consolation if Salzburg’s bravado was rewarded.
When Klopp was asked if this was an evening for Liverpool to show why they are champions of Europe, his immediate response was to laugh.
“Thank you very much,” he replied, the initial observation serving both as a compliment and reminder of the pressure arriving in Austria.
Yet this is precisely what Liverpool demonstrated in the Red Bull Arena. It was an evening to pump out those chests and make Salzburg look like cocky upstarts, even if the hosts did a fine job of that pre-match with their confident predictions of hat-tricks and victory, or choreographed behind-the-scenes self-promotion.
Klopp will not have taken kindly to the idea of Liverpool being guests at the Erling Haaland show, even if he knew Salzburg were as capable talking on the pitch as off it. In the event, Haaland left his big night early, subbed after his legs stopped working. This was a lesson learned by the young man, his brashness serving only to prompt Virgil van Dijk into action.
Salzburg were dangerous at first. Liverpool must have felt like they were looking at their own reflection, no respect shown to reputation and speedy runners at every tune. Klopp had to find the find flaws in his own template to halt this brash, cavalry charge. The early resistance of Van Dijk and Alisson was proof enough Klopp had his players were ready for the fight before the exceptional Naby Keïta and Sadio Mané took over, and Mohamed Salah found the trickiest of all paths to goal.
By the end, this away win was one of the best of Klopp’s reign – alongside Hoffenheim, Porto and Munich.
Such is Liverpool’s impregnability at Anfield in the Klopp era they will be team everyone wants to avoid in the last sixteen.
He and his players are where they should be and deserve to be. Exactly where no rival wants them.