March 10. It is a date that assumes an importance in Liverpool's recent history.
Not so much March 10, 2016, though their inaugural meeting with Manchester United in continental competition might prove significant, but March 10, 2009. It was the last great European night at Anfield, the final remarkable occasion in a tradition that dated back almost half a century.
It finished Liverpool 4 Real Madrid 0. The final few minutes came to a soundtrack of the Kop chorusing Jay Spearing’s name as the untried local sauntered around in the midfield, his every touch cheered as the most decorated club in European football were vanquished. Liverpool had been Champions League winners in 2005 and finalists in 2007. They topped Uefa’s club rankings.
Now they are 45th, sandwiched by Club Brugge and Red Bull Salzburg. It is one indication of a startling decline. Another lies in the memories from continental clashes. The 2000s brought a series of superb occasions: twin semi-finals against Chelsea, two occasions when Barcelona were eliminated, memorable meetings with Real and Arsenal and Roma and Juventus and Olympiakos.
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But after eviscerating Real, Liverpool were eliminated by Chelsea, Guus Hiddink’s 3-1 triumph at Anfield marking the tipping point. Since then, arguably, Anfield’s greatest European occasion was a Europa League group game against Napoli. Steven Gerrard, with a hat-trick and a tour de force, transformed defeat into victory, but it did not carry the same significance as earlier victories.
There is a sense that Jurgen Klopp’s appointment represented a chance to turn the tide of history again. Liverpool’s most exciting appointment since Rafa Benitez, the architect of the demolition of Real, the German has a pedigree in continental competition. Even before Liverpool were pitted against United, the 2013 Champions League finalist was taking the Europa League more seriously than either Roy Hodgson or Brendan Rodgers, who seemed to regard it as an unwanted nuisance.
These are clubs that have been defined by their European adventures. Liverpool, unlike United, have a pedigree in the Europa League’s predecessor. They were Uefa Cup winners in 1973, signifying Bill Shankly had built his second great team, and 1976, paving the way for their maiden European Cup victory 12 months later. They were so again in 2001, Gerard Houllier’s team confounding expectations by eliminating Roma and Barcelona en route to a wonderful treble.
That was proof impetus from one competition can spill over into others.
Klopp’s brand of football relies on a similar sense of momentum, powering his teams forward and creating an overwhelming sense of belief. The synergy between club and manager should be strongest when Anfield’s great European nights are considered, the wall of noise that forms a stark contrast to the lack of atmosphere at many domestic encounters prompting comparisons with the unity exuded by the thousands of Borussia Dortmund fans in the Westfalenstadion’s giant “Yellow Wall”.
Anfield has lost its capacity to intimidate. It may rediscover it in a maiden European meeting with Liverpool’s fiercest rivals.
And while Klopp faces a tough task to restore Liverpool to the summit of either the English or the European games, a first step would be to generate a regular sense of excitement. The last seven years have featured too many underwhelming nights at Anfield, draws with FC Basel and Young Boys and FC Sion and Braga and Rubin Kazan and defeats to Zenit St Petersburg and Udinese and Fiorentina and Lyon.
The best performance in that time came from Real, brushing Liverpool aside in a 3-0 win in 2014. It was a far cry from the heady days of 2009 when the inspired pair of Gerrard and Fernando Torres, plus unlikely allies such as the scorer Andrea Dossena and the substitute Spearing, inflicted a historic humiliation.
Beating United, however it happens, would automatically render it a happy anniversary. Yet if it heralds the return of Anfield’s great European nights, it will be still more important.
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