By the time Liverpool take the field against Real Madrid in Kyiv on May 26 it will have been one year and five days since Gini Wijnaldum, Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana each scored one goal against Middlesbrough on the last day of last season at Anfield to clinch a return to the Champions League.
Liverpool’s fourth-placed finish would bring only a second Champions League campaign in eight years, but a first after Jurgen Klopp’s first full season in charge. As far as Liverpool are concerned, he’s delivered every step of the way.
Time will tell what effect the loss of Zeljko Buvac – Klopp’s trusted lieutenant throughout his career – will have on the Reds’ preparation for the final and indeed going forward in the Premier League and Europe next season but right now there can be no denying that a return to the continental showpiece is a vindication for Klopp’s work on Merseyside.
He arrived in less than ideal circumstances and had to pick up the pieces of Brendan Rodgers’ reign, which had fizzled out to a sad end. He took another manager’s players all the way to the Europa League final where they were admittedly outclassed by Sevilla. But over time you could see the signs of progress.
A League Cup final and a Europa League final came first. A return to the Champions League came next. And now, most gloriously of all, Liverpool are back to where they feel they belong.
“You cannot plan a Champions League final if you are not Real Madrid or Barcelona or Bayern Munich,” said Klopp. “They are constantly in the last four so going there for them is much more normal than it is for us.
“We had to play the qualifier, we played Hoffenheim, but what I knew is that the competition and the football in the competition would suit us.”
What needs to happen next is for Klopp to turn his losing run in finals around; there have been five losses in a row. But Liverpool have a sense of destiny about them this term. That’s no reason to say they can beat Real Madrid of course but that front three of Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah are Zinedine Zidane’s worst nightmare.
They have hit 29 goals between them in Europe – that’s more than any other attack has ever managed in the Champions League. Klopp has devised a system whereby they are ready to accelerate and punish every time the opposition loses the ball.
From there, Liverpool hold hands to throats and get their scoring business over with. A flurry of goals has not been an uncommon sight for them in the Champions League this season. Three or four goals in short bursts mean that the opposition are overwhelmed and can’t recover.
There were signs of that in the second leg of the qualification round against Hoffenheim. Anfield under lights is a special place to experience football and Julian Nagelsmann’s side were out of their depth. There were three goals in the first 20 minutes of that game. It’s not so much that the opponents they’ve faced this season are all weak but the way Liverpool blitz their way towards goal means they just cannot showcase their strengths.
The transformation has been total. Look through their squad list from the game which marked the low point of Rodgers’ European career with the Reds.
Liverpool’s team from that night has been doing the rounds this week. Javier Manquillo, Kolo Toure, Alberto Moreno, Lucas Leiva, Joe Allen, Lazar Markovic and Fabio Borini all started in that game in November 2014 when Rodgers as good as surrendered to a 1-0 defeat at Santiago Bernabeu.
There has been a flush out of Liverpool since then as Klopp has attempted to remake the squad in his own image. And the contrast to Real Madrid is startling. Iker Casillas, Alvaro Arbeloa and James Rodriguez may have departed but every single other starter from that night is still considered a first-teamer.
Raphael Varane, Sergio Ramos and Marcelo continue to marshal the backline. Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and Isco still reign supreme in midfield. Up front Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema lead the line to this day.
Those players – multiple European title winners all – have long believed they belong on this stage. But key to Klopp’s success has been making his players believe the same thing. There has been encouragement for them and they have reaped the harvest of his methods.
He has added supreme quality to the team in Virgil van Dijk, Mane and Salah. Other signings like Andrew Robertson have performed better than expected. There have been improvements in Dejan Lovren and Jordan Henderson. Firmino has evolved into one of the best all-round forwards in the world. James Milner has taken on that senior role and played it expertly. Loris Karius probably still needs to do a little more to convince and Trent Alexander-Arnold will have learned plenty from his tough night in Rome.
“Do we have the widest squad in world football at the moment?,” asked Klopp on Wednesday night. “No we don’t.
“That this group went to the final is exceptional. We get all the knocks with injuries in the wrong moments and stuff like that.”
It’s a tight group and wins don’t always come easily when Klopp has to shuffle the pack. But that again is testament to the work he’s done. Given their strength, their spending power and their starting base, Klopp is overachieving. He’s got them flying in Europe and is again close to satisfying the top-four obligation in the league.
Many have tried before him - at many clubs - and many have failed to do that. There is of course that vital next step that Liverpool and their manager need to take in order to cement the belief in them. It won’t be easy.
“You cannot go to a Champions League final with nice football constantly being better than the other team, that’s not possible,” Klopp said. “You have to suffer from time to time. That’s how it is, we suffered. These boys go constantly over their limit.”
Your head might say Real Madrid but this football success story has always come from the heart.