LIVER­POOL

Soccer 360 - - Inside -

FOR­MERLY ENGLISH FOOTBALL’S MOST SUC­CESS­FUL CLUB, LIVER­POOL HAVEN’T WON THE LEAGUE TI­TLE SINCE 1990. CAN THEY OVER­COME THE MIGHT OF MANCH­ESTER CITY TO END THAT DROUGHT, DARYL HAM­MOND ASKS…

With his toothy grin, bel­low­ing guf­faw and cel­e­bra­tory bear hugs, Jur­gen Klopp is a larger than life char­ac­ter in the Pre­mier League. Gen­uine ex­pres­sions of de­light, such as the sprint onto the pitch to cel­e­brate a 96th-minute Mersey­side derby win­ner, will see the Ger­man re­mem­bered fondly when he even­tu­ally leaves An­field. But that’s not what Klopp wants to be re­mem­bered for.

“No­body wants to look back in 10 or 20 years and say ‘So the best time we had without win­ning any­thing was when Klopp was here. It was so funny and all that stuff,’” he in­sisted. “That’s not re­ally some­thing you want to achieve.”

Now three years into his ten­ure at Liver­pool, the 51-year-old’s heavy metal football has pro­duced bound­less en­ter­tain­ment but no tro­phies to show for it, coming clos­est in their re­cent Cham­pi­ons League fi­nal de­feat to Real Madrid.

This year they look a dif­fer­ent beast, and may have to find an ex­tra shelf or two in the tro­phy cab­i­net. A third of the way into the cam­paign they made their best start to a League sea­son, stay­ing un­beaten in their first 13 games and col­lect­ing a record 33 points.

For the first time in a while, the Reds are

in po­si­tion to mount a le­git­i­mate ti­tle chal­lenge. De­spite boast­ing 18 do­mes­tic League ti­tles in their his­tory, the Reds have never won the Pre­mier League in the com­pe­ti­tion’s 26-year his­tory and fans are more than a lit­tle des­per­ate for it. There are even web­sites ded­i­cated solely to mock­ing the Mersey­side club by count­ing time down to the sec­ond since they were the best team in Eng­land.

Not that they haven’t tried. Run­ners-up in 2002, it was re­ally a bat­tle for sec­ond with Manch­ester United, as Ar­se­nal won the ti­tle by seven points. A thorn in their 2008-09 ti­tle bid was the emer­gence of 17-yearold Ital­ian for­ward Federico Macheda for Manch­ester United, who, on his de­but, scored a su­perb 93rd minute win­ner against As­ton Villa. He did the same a week later, scor­ing in a 2-1 win over Sun­der­land. Those ex­tra four points were cru­cial as it proved the mar­gin of vic­tory Manch­ester United boasted over the Reds.

Liver­pool’s most re­cent ti­tle tilt was an in­cred­i­ble watch for neu­trals but may also be re­spon­si­ble for one or two heart prob­lems fans en­dured. Lead­ing the League with three games to go, cap­tain Steven Ger­rard’s in­fa­mous slip handed Demba

Ba a goal, Chelsea a win, and Manch­ester City the ti­tle. Crazy wins such 4-3 against Swansea, 5-3 against Stoke City and 6-3 at Cardiff City showed Liver­pool, backed by the mer­cu­rial Luis Suarez, could score for fun, but con­ceded goals al­most as eas­ily. The lat­est fail­ure served as a great ad­mon­ish­ment. De­fence wins ti­tles, and cal­lous re­gard for it does not. On the ev­i­dence of Klopp’s first two sea­sons, he did not heed that warn­ing and was mer­ci­lessly crit­i­cised by fans and pun­dits alike for his refusal to bol­ster his back­line. In his first two years he only spent £12m on de­fend­ers, be­fore splash­ing out £75m on Vigil Van Dijk. It may yet prove a bar­gain, as he looks to be the player who turned Liver­pool into le­git­i­mate con­tenders.

The Dutch­man looks so per­fect a cen­tre­back one would think he had been cre­ated in a video game. A gi­ant at 6ft 4in with a leap that makes him dom­i­nant in the air, yet still rapid enough to chase down most centre-for­wards, Van Dijk is the real deal. But per­haps his great­est as­sets are men­tal. He reads the game well, tack­les strongly and is a great or­gan­iser, talk­ing non-stop to his team­mate. The for­mer Southamp­ton man is the kind of char­ac­ter they have lacked at the back since Jamie Car­ragher re­tired in 2013.

Netherlands team­mate Davy Klassen hailed Van Dijk as one of the best de­fend­ers in the world, while Wat­ford striker Troy Deeney ad­mits he hates go­ing up against him.

“He’s too big,” Deeney com­plained. “He’s too strong, too quick, too good on the ball, loves fight­ing, [has] a good head of hair…” Per­fect in the vein eyes of Deeney, Van

Dijk is an even greater force to­gether with young de­fender Joe Gomez, with the two Klopp’s pre­ferred pair at the back. For­mer Ar­se­nal de­fender Martin Ke­own be­lieves they could go down as ‘one of the best centre-back part­ner­ships the Pre­mier League has ever seen.’ On the ev­i­dence of this sea­son, his as­ser­tions do not seem far­fetched. Liver­pool had only con­ceded five goals af­ter 14 games, com­pared to 15 goals by the same time last sea­son.

Van Dijk isn’t the only re­cent ar­rival mak­ing an im­pact either. Some of this sea­son’s ac­qui­si­tions, such as Xher­dan Shaqiri and Alis­son Becker, have made an im­pact at their re­spec­tive ends of the pitch, with

Naby Keita and Fabinho still set­tling into the side.

But while Liver­pool have cer­tainly bol­stered, the strength of their op­po­si­tion can’t be ig­nored. Chelsea look rev­o­lu­tionised un­der Mau­r­izio Sarri and Ar­se­nal are a solid side man­aged by Unai Emery, but right now Manch­ester City are the team to beat.

Un­der the stew­ard­ship of cel­e­brated and dec­o­rated man­ager Pep Guardi­ola, the Cit­i­zens can­tered to the ti­tle last sea­son with a record 100 points.

Klopp has made no se­cret of his ad­mi­ra­tion for both their Coach and the style of football he holds so dear, with the two hav­ing al­ready locked horns in Ger­many when he man­aged Borus­sia Dort­mund and Pep Bay­ern. “Watch­ing them is re­ally good,” he ac­knowl­edged. “My re­spect for Pep Guardi­ola couldn't be big­ger, he is the world's best man­ager and that makes it so dif­fi­cult, but so ex­cit­ing to play his teams.” Klopp was one of the few man­agers to con­sis­tently get the bet­ter of Pep Guardi­ola last year, win­ning 4-3 in the League and knock­ing City out of the Cham­pi­ons

League, but over the course of last sea­son Manch­ester City fin­ished 25 points ahead of Liver­pool in the ta­ble. Guardi­ola’s side have only strength­ened since by adding for­mer PFA Player of the Year Riyad Mahrez, and still look in­domitable this year.

In terms of pure en­ter­tain­ment, to some Klopp’s football sur­passed Guardi­ola’s. But while Manch­ester City’s sym­phony un­der Pep hits the third move­ment strongly, Liver­pool’s at­tack, fea­tur­ing the feared three­some of Mo­hamed Salah, Sa­dio Mane and Roberto Firmino, have hit a few bum notes this year.

Those three will still get goals, but Liver­pool also have to rely on their ri­vals stum­bling to open things up. Manch­ester City be­ing only good, rather than im­pos­si­bly great, is the best thing they can hope for, pray­ing they over­bur­den them­selves.

Last year, Liver­pool didn’t win any of their three matches played around the time of their Cham­pi­ons League tie against Roma and named a weak side for a Mersey­side derby sand­wiched be­tween Euro­pean games against City. With the Cham­pi­ons League such a cred­i­ble com­pe­ti­tion, even the League can be­come a dis­trac­tion.

Klopp pinned all hopes on Euro­pean suc­cess and it came back to bite him.

The 3-1 loss to Real Madrid was his sixth cup fi­nal de­feat in a row, and he is now tro­phy­less in as many years. A man­tel­piece of loser medals must surely irk a win­ner like Klopp, as well as fans who are grow­ing in­creas­ingly ex­pec­tant. Klopp has spent over £380m on play­ers in his time at Liver­pool, of which £160m was splashed this sum­mer alone.

While some of that money has gone into re­plac­ing high-pro­file de­par­tures such as Phillipe Coutinho, who joined Barcelona for £142m, it raises ex­pec­ta­tions as to what this Liver­pool side should achieve.

‘This is our year’ is a phrase often used to taunt Liver­pool fans for what sup­port­ers of other clubs feel is their un­re­al­is­tic op­ti­mism af­ter a few de­cent re­sults. But this year the Liver­pool faith­ful have ev­ery right to be a lit­tle bullish. Out­pac­ing Manch­ester City to claim first place in the Pre­mier League will be a Her­culean task, but Klopp may fi­nally have the team to do it. If any­one is go­ing to stop City, it’s Liver­pool.

‘In three years, Jur­gen Klopp has pro­duced bound­less en­ter­tain­ment but no tro­phies to show for it’

LEFT:Jur­gen Klopp rarely hides his emo­tions and that’s en­deared him to the Liver­pool fans

‘Liver­pool have to rely on their ri­vals stum­bling’

ABOVE:Liver­pool have lots to cel­e­brate.

‘Manch­ester City fin­ished 25 points ahead of Liver­pool’

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