Just the simple act of being back in his native Germany will ensure that Jurgen Klopp will be in a reflective mood as he takes his Liverpool side to face Augsburg in the Europa League tonight, and he won’t be the only one with things to ponder.
The Reds find themselves in their manager’s homeland having negotiated an unremarkable group stage in an unremarkable manner, with two wins and four draws under two different managers and an absence of the ‘famous European nights’ upon which Anfield’s legacy was forged. Bordeaux, Sion and Rubin Kazan don’t exactly suggest glamour.
Neither does a city of just over a quarter of a million people, the third-largest in Bavaria, for that matter, but at least Augsburg – one point off the relegation zone in the Bundesliga having remained winless in 2016 – will be well-known to Klopp. During what has been an at times head-spinningly busy first few months at Anfield, this fixture would always have been one he kept his eye on.
And Liverpool arrive into it in good heart.
A meeting with Aston Villa really should be prescribed to anyone who is feeling a little down in dumps, but the manner of Sunday’s 6-0 victory will have restored a feelgood factor following an FA Cup exit and the sight of the challengers for the Premier League’s top four places disappearing into the distance.
Philippe Coutinho was creating, Daniel Sturridge was dancing and even Kolo Toure scored, a sight to bring a smile to the face of even the most hardened of football cynics.
And there has been too much about Liverpool which hasn’t been fun in the past two years to suggest that those smiles aren’t significant, especially ahead of a period in which Klopp will expect to see his methods come across.
Perhaps more than any other English club, Liverpool have become painfully aware of their place in the modern game over the past few seasons, and that place isn’t with the elite.
To put things in context, the Reds will play in their 43rd different Europa League fixture (including qualifiers) since 2010 tonight, and in that time they’ve played just six times in the Champions League. Forever striving to one day move back into the bigger house, they’re still setting up camp in the ramshackle place next door.
The days when Rafael Benitez led them to the knockout stages of five successive Champions League tournaments – winning one, you may remember – have long gone, but the legacy they created made it possible to appoint a manager like Klopp, an emotional figure who bases many of his decisions on feeling.
The former Borussia Dortmund boss wouldn’t have joined the likes of Southampton, West Ham, Watford or Stoke – all within two points of Liverpool in the Premier League right now – had managerial vacancies come up there at the time of his Anfield appointment.
As Klopp has stated this week, he joined Liverpool because he felt the pull of history, something which has often acted as a millstone around the necks of the club’s managers and players, but which clearly counted for something in the mind of one of the best coaches in the world.
And Liverpool have to buy into that mind of his now, because with the absence of the millions available to the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City, Klopp is their only way out of the status of eternal also-rans.
The early signs are positive, with this week’s move for the Schalke defender Joel Matip clearly having Klopp’s fingerprints all over it, and with Sturridge and Coutinho both available again, Roberto Firmino having found his feet and the treatment room clearing, there is suddenly optimism on a horizon which features a chance of European progression and then a League Cup final in the next three games.
Wembley and Manchester City will be an occasion to savour, and for Klopp to win a trophy at the first time of asking to strengthen an already solid bond with the supporters, but to really make giant early leaps on a global scale then winning the Europa League looks to be the obvious answer.
It would serve the twin purposes of getting Liverpool back into the Champions League and give notice to ambitious players all around the globe that the Klopp Project 2.0 had really begun.
Like Matip, most of the players that will be interesting the Reds manager in the summer are likely to be based in Germany, so where better to really kickstart their Europa League challenge after a quiet group phase?
Liverpool have made the continent’s second-tier competition their home this decade, and to leave it behind then they are going to have to win it.
That opportunity starts at Augsburg tonight, when Germany will get to have a look at Klopp’s Liverpool, what it is now and what it can become.
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