Liverpool (AFP) – The last time Liverpool faced the might of Real Madrid, then manager Brendan Rodgers named a second-string side so impossible did it seem that England’s most successful club on the European stage could compete with the self-proclaimed “kings of Europe”.
Madrid won 1-0 at the Santiago Bernabeu that November night in 2014, two weeks after they had inflicted Liverpool’s heaviest ever European home defeat by cruising to a 3-0 victory at Anfield.
Such was the gulf between the sides that even a former Manchester United hero Cristiano Ronaldo was applauded off on what used to be enemy territory. Madrid were a class apart rather than a competitor.
Fast-forward three-and-a-half years and Jurgen Klopp has transformed the five-time European champions back into believing they are worthy of their place in a Champions League final when they face Real once more in Kiev on Saturday.
“A lot of things happened since I came in, but the biggest change was how the people changed in the case of how much they like their actual team,” said Klopp on Monday.
“That is really nice and helped a lot. The boys deserved this. They had an exceptional season, always could be better, but it was really good and a big step in comparison to last year.”
Klopp’s tenure has been far from all plain sailing. He acknowledged even after ousting Premier League champions Manchester City 5-1 on aggregate in the quarter-finals that the clock was ticking on his promise to deliver a trophy in his first four years.
By contrast, since the sides last met, Madrid have won another two Champions Leagues, a La Liga title, two Club World Cups and two European Super Cups.
– Best yet to come –
However, the feeling around Anfield is that Liverpool can now compete with Europe’s elite, and — with Klopp having renewed his contract till 2022 — the best is still to come.
“This could be the start of something special under Klopp, he’s world class,” the last Liverpool captain to lift the Champions League, Steven Gerrard, told BT Sport after a rollercoaster 7-6 aggregate semi-final win over Roma.
Klopp’s role as a rabble-rousing, bear-hugging cheerleader on the sidelines makes the 50-year-old a colourful and loveable character for fans, players and media alike.
However, the headlines he creates often hide a keen eye for the tactical details that count.
None more so than how Klopp didn’t let the loss of arguably his best player in Philippe Coutinho for a Premier League record sale of £142 million ($194 million, 160 million euros) in the middle of the season derail Liverpool’s road to Kiev.