It’s been a long wait for silverware, ever since Jurgen Klopp took over at Liverpool. Did somebody say third time lucky?
In Klopp they believe
In the run-up to the final, Klopp was asked about his biggest moment in coaching. It wasn’t with Liverpool, nor was it with Borussia Dortmund, the two sides that he revived with a dash of magic from the sidelines. This was about his first job as manager at Mainz in 2001
There are few things that can match that feeling of being third time lucky. Ask Jurgen Klopp.
Since taking charge of Liverpool in 2015, the manager is preparing for his third European final in four years. The first two ended badly; a 1-3 loss to Sevilla in the Europa League in 2016, followed by another 1-3 loss, this time to Real Madrid, in the Champions League last year. On the cusp of another final then, this time against English counterparts Tottenham Hotspur, Klopp may ask himself this question: do I feel lucky?
In the run-up to the final, Klopp was asked about his biggest moment in coaching. It wasn’t with Liverpool, nor was it with Borussia Dortmund, the two sides that he revived with a dash of magic from the sidelines. This was about his first job as manager at Mainz in 2001, who at the time languished at the bottom of Bundesliga 2, the second tier of German club football.
It wasn’t like Klopp was qualified for the job. Instead, Klopp was handed the responsibility at a time when nothing was going Mainz’s way, and the management, at the end of their rope, simply decided to put one of their senior players in charge instead of hunting for yet another manager.
Klopp, then a regular member of the Mainz defence, was that player. From barking orders from the defence in his raspy voice, he was now prancing in front of the substitute bench.
Nobody believed Mainz would earn a promotion to the Bundesliga, given their underwhelming budget and the players it drew. Nobody, except Klopp. He was always a good student of the game, but not a great player. His brain thought of revolutionary new ideas, but his feet could not execute them. Now, freed from having to use his feet, Klopp was restless and optimistic. He believed he could turn things around.
It took little time for Klopp to earn the confidence of his dressing room, riding on that famous charisma. But behind the charm there was grit—it took him three seasons of earnest, nose-to-the-ground work. The first season, Mainz missed promotion by a solitary point; in the second season, by a single goal. In 2004, in season 3 of the Klopp show, Mainz were finally in the Bundesliga, for the first time in their history.
Klopp, third time lucky.
The supporters at Mainz had long been transformed by Klopp’s infectious optimism, receiving the team with open arms even before their first unsuccessful attempt at promotion.
Just like Liverpool fans have since Klopp took over.
Ever since that miracle of Istanbul in 2005, Liverpool has played the role of an underdog to perfection—second best, unlucky losers and an earnest, talented, team that just could not go the distance.
Three league finishes in second spot in the last decade, besides as many European finals in the last four years is testimonial.
Anyone associated with the club has nodded his head in dismay, heaved a sigh at the distress caused by the season, before picking up the pieces and hoping for better next time.
Liverpool fans have always been faithful, but something changed when Klopp walked in. They believed.
The rebuilding needed this time around was a far cry from what Klopp had to deal with in the past. Nonetheless, he displayed alacrity while evaluating what he had on hand, and shrewdness when it came to picking new signings. All that remained then, was implementation and getting the club to resubscribe to that winning mentality.
On Saturday, Klopp will be part of this third Champions League final. And by his own admission, he has “never been a part of a final with a better team than this”. While at Dortmund in 2013, he was denied by a late goal, last year, he was left bemused after some school boy errors on the pitch.
So much has changed since then.
Their 97-point Premier League campaign—and just one loss all season—was proof of that change, though it came with the infamy of picking up the most points without winning the league. In the Champions League, they left it to a mature 1-0 display against Napoli to qualify for the knockouts. There on, Porto was a rout, Bayern sheer astuteness, while Barcelona was transformed from a “beautiful failure” into a chest-thumping show of what team spirit is all about.
A few of Klopp’s buys have had a season to remember. The world’s most expensive defender, Virgil van Dijk, finished as the PFA Player of the Year; Alisson Becker finished with the golden glove; and Sadio Mane and Mohammed Salah were joint winners of the golden boot alongside Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. This, despite Liverpool finished second in the league.
Young blood such as Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson have been a revelation. James Milner and Jordan Henderson have, at times, played out of their skin, while the likes of Fabinho and Gini Wijnaldum have been omnipresent on the field. It’s an apt reflection of the inspiration that the boss has sprinkled over this team, who after all these years of promise, are finally a side to reckon with.
As much as a final is about two teams, this one—with sincere apologies to the Spurs’ fans—is about just one. Liverpool have finally shed the tag of the underdogs. And should Liverpool win it, Klopp will yet again be third time lucky.