A manager with a collectivist style of play was deflecting talk about individual glory. Yet he could also speak from a position of some comfort. His status is already exalted, his reputation safer than most. Idolised in the Liverpool fanbase, admired elsewhere, he was voted the LMA’s Manager of the Year by his peers. He was presented with the award by Sir Alex Ferguson and could join the great Scot in a select group to win Europe’s top prize twice with English clubs. The only other members are Brian Clough and Bob Paisley, whose three triumphs place him at the top of the list.
Win or lose against Real Madrid in Paris and Klopp has a hat-trick of his own. Reaching a third Champions League final in five seasons is another reason he need not worry about his reputation. And yet, if he gets his way, perhaps he is only at the halfway point. “Three times in five years is exceptional,” he said. “If we can do that again it would be six in 10 which is ridiculous.” Perhaps it was a throwaway line, perhaps a statement of intent.
Klopp can live in the moment while looking into the future. The last few months offer proof of both. Liverpool are unbeaten in meaningful matches in 2022. Meanwhile, Klopp has extended his contract until 2026. He has signed Luis Diaz and Fabio Carvalho. His second side at Anfield is taking shape before the first has been broken up.
Change is coming amid the continuity. Eight of the starters against Real in the 2018 final could be involved again; six are likely to begin again. They face familiar faces. “The majority won it three times - Toni Kroos, Luka Modric, Casemiro, [Karim] Benzema – so if we are in a better place, what are they?” wondered Klopp.
The undeniable element is that Liverpool are stronger now. Four years ago, they finished 25 points behind Manchester City. Now the deficit is just one. Then they went to Kyiv without the injured Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Joel Matip and Joe Gomez, with a ring-rusty Adam Lallana and Emre Can on the bench and forced to summon the former when Mohamed Salah was injured after half an hour. “We came there but on three wheels,” Klopp recalled. Arguably they finished with two.
Now Salah and Virgil van Dijk are fit after injury scares, Fabinho has resumed training and the news is “surprisingly good” about Thiago Alcantara.
Now, too, questions about Klopp’s past come with the context that he is a Champions League winner. The 2018 showpiece continued a trend of final defeats that began with Borussia Dortmund. “It is nice I don’t have to talk about the last six finals I lost but it is part of my history, I cannot change that,” reflected Klopp.
Liverpool face the club with more history in this competition than anyone else. Real have added to it in implausible fashion, losing to Sheriff Tiraspol in the group stages and mounting a series of memorable fightbacks in the knockout rounds. It poses problems when analysing them but the optimist in Klopp is looking at the bigger picture.
“If you only take the last 10 minutes [of games] you say they are pretty much unbeatable, no chance, because the comebacks were really special but the games were longer than 10 minutes,” he said. Liverpool have had to come from behind themselves in recent matches. It could prove useful practice.
“If you arrive and think everything will go in your way in a Champions League final, that is really naive,” Klopp said.
Real’s inspired surge has added to the legend of Carlo Ancelotti. For 24 hours, Klopp shared a managerial record by reaching a fourth Champions League final. Then the Italian made it to his fifth. There have been some bitter managerial rivalries: Klopp and Ancelotti, even though they worked on either sides of Merseyside, is not one of them.
“Carlo is obviously one of the most successful managers in the world but a role model in the way he deals with the success,” Klopp said. “He is one of the best people you could ever meet. He is a really nice guy, fantastic company.” They put their friendship on hold when the Italian was Everton manager, opting not to go out for dinner but Ancelotti offers “pure experience.”
He has won a Champions League final against Liverpool. He has lost another, in 2005, to maybe the greatest comeback of all in this competition. Then there was something remarkable that an otherwise undistinguished Liverpool team could even reach the final.
Now Klopp’s team are in a third, perhaps with three more to come. It may be a feat of managerial wizardry but the German said: “We are not here by magic.”