Outside a Lisbon café about seven years ago, Jurgen Klopp’s phone rang and interrupted a family holiday. Normally he would have screened the call – “We were completely in a holiday mood,” the Liverpool manager remembered yesterday – but something told him that this was a conversation worth having.
Klopp was still enjoying an extended break following his departure from Borussia Dortmund at the time, but it was coming to the point where he would have to start seriously considering his next move.
“There were some rumors around, which we didn’t really follow, but with two sons they pick up pretty much everything. So, I knew from them that a couple of things could happen, and then we were sitting there and the phone rang. I didn’t take a lot of calls in this time, because with my family there why should I talk to anyone else?”
This time, Klopp made an exception. “It was my agent [Marc Kosicke] who is also my friend as well and when he said yeah, Liverpool is calling, the boys were looking at me and in that moment for them the decision was made. Ulla [Sandrock, his wife] then had to put the thumb up and it was clear we would do it, because it just felt right from the first second.”
It was Lisbon, then, where the special bond between Klopp and the club that he would restore to the pinnacle of European football was first formed. That lends a small sense of fate to the Champions League quarter-final first leg away to Benfica on Tuesday night, at the start of 12 days that could shape the final eight weeks of the season.
As hard-earned as Saturday’s win over Watford was, three points were expected and will be in practically every remaining league match from Sunday onwards. It is the next four games – this Benfica double-header, with the Manchester City league and cup pair spliced in between – that could make all the difference. Liverpool’s run-in starts here.
The quarter-final draw has arguably been as kind as it possibly could be, with their opponents sat in third-place in the Primeira Liga and the rank outsiders of this last eight. But that does not mean Benfica should be underestimated, as the elimination of Erik ten Hag’s Ajax in the previous round proved.
In Darwin Nunez, Benfica have a centre-forward who is expected to become a household name, following his compatriots Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani to the very top. Manchester United’s interest in Nunez is genuine, but he is already a Champions League caliber striker who can demand the opportunity to play at this rarefied level when choosing his next employers.
“[Nunez] is not the only one,” Klopp rightly pointed out and it will be interesting to see whether Adel Taarabt can provide a point against an English club. Make no mistake though, Liverpool are strong favourites. The omens are good too. There were quarter-finals against Benfica in 1978 and 1984 before the triumphs in Wembley and Rome. And then there is the story of that phone call and Klopp’s first return to the Portuguese capital in a professional capacity.
It was put to Klopp that things could not have gone much better since he answered that call, though in a way, they could have. “I would love to say we were champions in 2019 as well but we weren’t and I would love to say we won the Champions League final in 2018, so that all would have been great, but I don’t judge my time here about the trophies too much,” he said. “I know everyone else is doing that but it is about the way we play and the way we develop and the way the club is and the position the club is in is much more important.”
The Klopp era at Anfield will be remembered for its many successes rather than those few near misses, but they are just as much part of the story. And though the Liverpool manager is right when he says that progress should not be measured solely in silverware, he can accept that it is often the reality on the outside.
Another season of sometimes breathtaking, brilliant football will feel like another missed opportunity to some if it only ends with the Carabao Cup, especially if next season is to be his penultimate year in charge.
“I know the stories on us are very positive at the moment and rightly so, the boys deserve it, but we all know one failure, one little wrong step and at least one competition can be gone so we have to make sure,” Klopp admitted. Liverpool’s season has reached its endgame and it starts back where it all began.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.