News Matches

Emery, Klopp and the night in a Basel bar which set Liverpool on the path to European glory

3:00 AM EDT 5/3/22
Liverpool 2016 Champions League GFX
The Reds take on Villarreal looking to secure their third Champions League final berth in five years, but their journey started with a bitter defeat

Bed was the only thing on Jordan Henderson’s mind when he returned to Basel’s Novotel hotel.

It was just before midnight, and it had not been a good day. Having led at half-time, Liverpool had lost, painfully, to Sevilla in the final of the Europa League, their 3-1 defeat ensuring another trophyless season for the men from Anfield.

Henderson himself had not even made it off the bench. Having rushed back from a knee injury to feature, the captain watched on as Jurgen Klopp instead turned to Divock Origi, Joe Allen and Christian Benteke in a fruitless attempt to turn the tide.

Back at the hotel, the plan was to switch off, to try and force some sleep and hide from the disappointment and the bitterness. “To not see anybody and get my head down,” as he put it.

Klopp had other ideas.

“You’ve got 10 minutes,” the manager told his players and staff. “And then I want you all back down here in the bar. All of you.”

Henderson was reluctant - “It was the last thing I wanted, to be honest” - but he and his team-mates obliged.

And as the minutes passed, the pain slowly began to subside. Soon there were smiles and there was laughter. Perspective had been restored, positivity had returned.

Some time in the early hours, Klopp grabbed a microphone. “We are Liverpool, tra-la-la-la-la,” he sang, urging the rest to join in. They did. Defiance in Switzerland. It was daylight before the last of the stragglers headed to their rooms.

Almost six years on, Henderson looks back on that impromptu party and recognises its significance.

“I will always remember it,” he told reporters before Liverpool’s victory over Villarreal in the first leg of their Champions League semi-final last week.

“The manager was different, his mentality was different. It felt as if he knew it was the start of something to come.”

Klopp had been as saddened as anyone by what had happened in St Jakob Park, cutting a forlorn figure as his side fell apart in the second half. But in his post-match press conference, he would deliver one of the most prescient quotes of his Liverpool reign.

"Someday,” he told reporters, “everybody will say that Basel was a very decisive moment for the wonderful future of Liverpool FC.”

Much has changed since then, of course. Only four of Liverpool’s 18-man squad - Henderson, Origi, James Milner and Roberto Firmino - remain, and the Reds have long moved past the Europa League as a point of reference.

If they finish the job against Villarreal on Tuesday, they will contest their third Champions League final in five seasons.

Klopp has built an incredible side, and plenty of its origins can be traced back to Basel, and the lessons learned at the hands of Unai Emery and Sevilla.

It was the manner of that defeat, for example, which convinced Klopp of the need to add serious attacking speed and a more flexible, physical kind of midfielder.

He signed both Sadio Mane and Gini Wijnaldum, as well as Joel Matip, that summer, and offloaded no fewer than 15 players, including four of his 18-man squad in Basel.

He had arrived on Merseyside convinced that the team he had inherited from Brendan Rodgers was a good one, but had quickly realised there were deep-rooted issues in terms of confidence and mentality. As he told his players in one memorable meeting: “nobody likes this team, not even ourselves.”

Changing that mindset was already high on the agenda, but even more so after Sevilla, whose comeback opened up all of the scars Liverpool would rather have kept hidden.

Put under pressure, they folded, losing their lead, their composure, their belief and finally the game. Even Klopp was criticised, spending much of the second-half attempting to whip up the crowd as his substitutions and tactical tweaks had minimal effect.

“The first thing you have to do when you look at the man in the mirror is criticise yourself,” he admitted afterwards. “I can improve a lot.”

He also promised that Liverpool would “use this experience together”, that they would learn and grow and improve.

They did. Within 12 months they were back in the Champions League, their side then evolving further with the arrivals of Mohamed Salah and Andy Robertson, as well as the perfectly-timed emergence of Trent Alexander-Arnold.

They have not looked back since, nailing their recruitment and growing into one of the two best teams in Europe, and perhaps the best in Reds history. The fact there is even a discussion is remarkable, given the greats that have gone before.

If May goes as well as February, March and April did, this side could end up with everything they could ever wish for - FA Cup, Premier League and Champions League, to go with the Carabao Cup they won earlier this year.

In their way this week, of course, is a familiar foe.

Emery hurt them with Sevilla and he could hurt them again with Villarreal, even if Liverpool looked a cut above when securing a 2-0 first leg lead at Anfield last Wednesday.

A red-hot atmosphere is expected at the Estadio de la Ceramica. Villarreal have little to lose and everything to gain, and know the first goal, whenever it should arrive, would put them right back in the tie.

Even if they get it, though, do not expect Liverpool to panic. Not this team.

The world has changed since Basel. And Klopp and his side have their eye on Paris this time around.