Sweet 16: Champions League progress will make or break Klopp’s Liverpool project

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Progress on European football's premier stage would not simply underscore the advancement of the Reds, it will aid their ambitious vision too

Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool had been beaten, but he refused to allow them to be wholly broken.

Sevilla had “stunned” his side in the second half of the Europa League final at St. Jakob-Park to record a stirring 3-1 fightback, winning the competition for a third consecutive occasion.

Europa League final Liverpool Sevilla Basel

The scenes had stung. The manner of the implosion seared. And, if allowed, that failure could have been most stifling for the Reds. But Klopp's response to the deflating result 567 days ago in Basel was defiant.

“We are responsible for not being in the Champions League next season, but now we have to use the time,” he said.

“We have to use it. I promise everyone, we will use it. We will come back stronger 100 per cent.”

Fast forward a year and Liverpool had secured a top-four finish in the Premier League ahead of Arsenal and Manchester United, perching them on the verge of rejoining Europe’s elite. “You have to make steps and the step is for us to be around the best teams in the world because we are at one of the best clubs in the world,” Klopp said in May, his charges still facing the hurdle of navigating a qualifier against Hoffenheim.

“For development you need to feel the improvement, feel the next step that it’s right.”

The Merseysiders strode forward by ousting their Bundesliga opponents with a 6-3 aggregate win over two legs to participate in the group phase of the Champions League for only the second time in eight seasons.

HD Liverpool Hoffenheim

"I do not have enough words, it is amazing,” was the 50-year-old’s response to triumphing so emphatically in the decisive tie. “It is 14 months of the hardest work and it feels amazing. I can't find another word.”

On Wednesday, when Spartak Moscow line up at Anfield, Liverpool will have the opportunity to compete in the knockout stages of the tournament - a feat not accomplished since 2008-09.

Unsurprisingly, despite being a manager that often plays down the significance of individual matches, Klopp has described the fixture as “ the game” - another platform for his side to underscore their progress and prove they belong in the company of football's powerhouses.

“It is a very important match for us,” he said. “I don't want to make it bigger than it is, but it is very big. It's a proper final. It is all or nothing. We know about the situation. They know about the situation."

Victory on their own turf would see the Reds top Group E, while a draw will be enough to secure their passage through to the Last 16. Either result would not only indicate that Liverpool are continuing to advance under Klopp, it will also empower them to augment their upward trajectory by helping keep their chief talents and recruiting more premier players.

Firmino Sadio Mane

While Philippe Coutinho’s long-term future may lie away from Anfield given the pull of Barcelona, there is still the matter of making sure Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino are still forming part of the club’s formidable attack in upcoming seasons.

On the Egyptian, his international manager Hector Cuper has already declared: “I’ve received confirmed news revealing Real Madrid’s interest.” The worry of both Spanish giants circling around Mane, meanwhile, was already spread last season.

Firmino is in line for a new contract that further stresses his importance to Liverpool, and while his unique gifts may not be commonly revered in England, the Brazilian is lionised by scouting departments on the continent.

Mohamed Salah

Extending the deals of their foremost assets and attracting top-end players is intertwined with progression in the competition as well as a sustained presence in it.

"It’s a big influence on the transfer market, especially if you do qualify more often,” Klopp admitted earlier this year.

“I said before the game that if you talk to players - and players better than ours are difficult to find, I know a lot of people think differently but we do the work and it’s not easy to find 20 top players in each position - they say, ‘Oh if you play Champions League, it would be really great because the club is good, the manager is not too bad’ and all this stuff. 

"Even if you want to extend the contract of a player in the squad, they say: ‘We want to play Champions League.’”

Liverpool want the very best and footballers of that stature rightly demand to regularly compete against the very best.  

GFX Jurgen Klopp Liverpool quote v Spartak

Klopp has lost just two of his 20 European games while in charge on Merseyside, and given the significance of the encounter, he will rate it as non-negotiable to extend that impressive statistic under the lights on Wednesday night.

In just seven Champions League fixtures under his tutelage, the Reds have scored 22 goals, with only Paris-Saint Germain boasting a better return this season.

Across all competitions, they have netted three times or more in seven of their last eight fixtures. And despite Massimo Carrera insisting Spartak “do not fear” their hosts, the Russian champions will be apprehensive about Liverpool’s potency in attack.

HD Salah Coutinho Liverpool celebrate

It will be the key differential as Klopp's men aim to move beyond their group for the first time in three campaigns, having failed to push on in 2009-10 and 2014-15.

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“We are only part of the Champions League because we want to go to the next round,” the Reds boss said in his pre-match briefing.

“I am really excited about the opportunity, having a game like this you don’t have guarantees in life – the only thing is if you don’t try all then you get nothing. So let’s try all and we will see where it leads us to.”

Liverpool need to action Klopp’s words as they have being doing since their body-blow in Basel - both for the present and their ambitious long-term vision.

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