Five years ago to the day, Jurgen Klopp took a giant stride into Liverpool folklore. He had been their manager for six months. His former club, Borussia Dortmund, arrived at a packed, expectant Anfield for the second leg of a European quarter-final. Within 10 minutes, Liverpool trailed 3-1 in the tie.
There the towering equation – at least three goals needed, now that Dortmund had their two away strikes – remained until half-time, when Klopp reached into the archive. “We used the story of Istanbul,” he revealed afterwards of his inspiring team talk.
Istanbul: It is the most famous chapter in the long saga of Liverpool comebacks in Europe, a 3-0 half-time deficit against AC Milan in the 2005 Champions League final transformed into eventual victory on penalties. Against Dortmund Klopp wrote his own chapter. “3-1 down, and then 4-2 down – no problem,” Klopp beamed after a 4-3 rollercoaster, with a 91st minute winner putting Liverpool through to the Europa League semi, 5-4 on aggregate. “Maybe the next generation of Liverpool players will use this game,” Klopp forecast.
Might he cite it, or other fabled turnarounds, ahead of confronting the 3-1 deficit Liverpool take into the second leg of their Champions League last-eight tie against Real Madrid tonight? “We will see,” Klopp replied, “some of the players were involved [in previous comebacks].”
Against Dortmund five years ago, Roberto Firmino, James Milner and Divock Origi played significant parts.
Every Liverpool employee knows the legends that preceded that one – the famous Anfield recoveries against Bruges and Saint-Etienne in the 1970s; the Steven Gerrard goal, one of three in a second half against Olympiakos that transformed a likely group-stage exit into the launchpad of a Champions League-winning run completed in Istanbul.
Liverpool have long cultivated the idea of the comeback impulse as an inimitable part of the club’s character. It is the special pride of Anfield, too, a stadium where the atmosphere rouses like few others.
Player ratings from first leg
But take the spectators and the songs away, as a public health crisis has done, and Anfield loses its aura. Five of the last six home league games have been defeats. “We cannot take comebacks for granted, especially with no crowd,” said Klopp. “We have to create our own atmosphere. We have to bring ourselves into a mood where we start believing. Having no supporters is just one extra problem.”
The other problems in a season of deflating hopes are well chronicled. Injuries mean every fixture features a makeshift back four.
Madrid, with their finessed counter-attacking, pulled the Liverpool defence out of shape again and again last week. None of the senior central defenders, Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez or Joel Matip are available because of long-term injury, nor is Jordan Henderson fit to patrol the area in front of the defensive understudies.
Madrid, though, are hardly in better health. Sergio Ramos and Rafa Varane, first-choice central pairing, are both out quarantining. Neither Dani Carvaval nor Lucas Vazquez are available at right-back. “We’re at the limit physically,” said Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane after a tiring Real just held on to a 2-1 win over Barcelona at the weekend.
“They have had an intense season and injuries,” acknowledged Klopp. “We are the same. But I am 100 per cent sure they will be 100 cent ready. What we have to do is clear – play like our best selves.
“We have to defend at our absolute highest level, and that’s what we didn’t do the other night. But I’ve no idea if any team in the world can prevent Madrid from having any chances.”
He drew special attention to Vinicius Junior, whose speed and two goals swung the first leg Madrid’s way. “An outstanding talent,” Klopp said of the 20-year-old Brazilian. “Everybody knew that before [his brace against Liverpool], so I was impressed but not surprised. We have to avoid the passes made in his direction, which is a big task.
“A clean sheet will be very important. But if we can create more than we did in Madrid – which should be possible, as we didn’t create a lot – then we’ll see.”