‘Jur­gener Be­liev­ers’ no longer day­dream va­ri­ety: Michael Walker:

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - Michael Walker

Glo­ri­ously mun­dane it was. An­field, Wed­nes­day, and the red score­board clock on the Kop showed Liver­pool had just gone 4-0 up against New­cas­tle United. There were five min­utes left of a game that was by no means en­thralling.

In fact, un­til this mo­ment the most im­pres­sive as­pect of Liver­pool’s af­ter­noon was its or­di­nar­i­ness. Here was a rou­tine win un­fold­ing, the eighth in a row in the Premier League, the 16th in 19 matches. It was, as the Liver­pool Echo re­ported, “eco­nom­i­cal”.

Then, close to where a ban­ner with the words “Jur­gener Be­liev­ers” was held up be­fore kick-off, a sec­tion of the Kop brought the noise.

Le­ices­ter City had just scored a sec­ond, late goal against Manch­ester City and the news had trav­elled 200km north in an in­stant. At An­field, it was ab­sorbed and un­der­stood just as quickly. It was em­braced like a lost medal.

Word spread. It flowed around the sta­dium, happy gos­sip, con­grat­u­la­tions, and the vol­ume rose and rose. It was one of those oc­ca­sions when the crowd be­comes the ac­tion. These are al­ways bril­liant scenes, it’s just that they nor­mally oc­cur on the sea­son’s fi­nal af­ter­noons, not in De­cem­ber. It was news from else­where, big news from else­where.

Liver­pool’s lat­est vic­tory and Man City’s lat­est de­feat meant seven points sep­a­rated the clubs. There has been a sud­den shift. City re­main cham­pi­ons, but Liver­pool look like cham­pi­ons-elect.

Jür­gen Klopp would spit out his tea at such pre­ma­ture ac­cla­ma­tion, no doubt, but the ta­ble says it is le­git­i­mate.

That does not make it a cer­tainty, of course it doesn’t, and from los­ing at Arse­nal at the start of the month, Tot­ten­ham have en­tered the ti­tle race. Chelsea may be a dif­fer­ent force in a few weeks. Some­times Liver­pool can look un­ex­cep­tional in mid­field.

But, as their sup­port­ers dis­solved into the An­field streets, their hub­bub height­ened by the Tan­noy’s con­fir­ma­tion of the 2-1 re­sult from Le­ices­ter, the re­al­ity set­tling on ev­ery­one was that, if Liver­pool main­tain their form, 2019 will see the league ti­tle re­turn af­ter 29 years away spent mainly, painfully in Manch­ester.

On 51 points at the half­way stage, Klopp’s team have given them­selves a plat­form from which they can see the end. It is un­likely to be as low as 79 points, which Kenny Dal­glish’s side claimed in 1989-90, but it might not be 89 points ei­ther.

Sea­son man­age­ment

Although City soared to the ti­tle on 100 points last sea­son, they ac­tu­ally needed only 82 to win it. And over the past five sea­sons, 81-82 points is the aver­age to­tal re­quired to fin­ish first. Liver­pool, re­peat, have 51 al­ready.

Just as “game man­age­ment” has be­come a term we hear of­ten, Liver­pool evan­ge­lists – and there are a few of them around – may soon be heard dis­cussing the mer­its of sea­son man­age­ment.

This has the ring of peo­ple get­ting ahead of them­selves, and Klopp would pre­fer the one-game-at-a-time mantra. But it could be help­ful if there is a stum­ble.

It may pro­tect Klopp and his squad from the po­ten­tially desta­bil­is­ing angst a cou­ple of de­feats could in­duce in a fan­base so des­per­ate to sing “cham­pi­ons” again. For once, there could be a ben­e­fit to look­ing longer term, of con­sid­er­ing that 27 or 28 vic­to­ries plus a few draws may be enough – and that Liver­pool have 16 wins al­ready.

That view could be use­ful, even nec­es­sary, at a club that car­ries on the front of the match-day pro­gramme: “We Are Liver­pool. This Means More.”

Tot­ten­ham Hot­spur fans, who have not seen their club win the league since 1961 and who are mov­ing into a re­de­vel­oped White Hart Lane shortly, would dis­pute that. But the sheer wait, the sheer weight, of Liver­pool’s 29 years means the ti­tle will mat­ter more to them than to City or Chelsea or Manch­ester United sim­ply be­cause those clubs have won it re­cently.

The emo­tional in­vest­ment was ev­i­dent on the Kop as news of Le­ices­ter’s win­ner ar­rived.

Klopp joked af­ter­wards that he was “naive” be­cause he had thought the re­sponse was for the un­flus­tered ef­fec­tive­ness of his side’s play. He re­peated his as­ser­tion that Liver­pool re­quire “tun­nel vi­sion”, no dis­trac­tions. He called the news from the mid­lands “just in­for­ma­tion” and asked why Tot­ten­ham’s 5-0 score­line against Bournemouth had not been passed around in quite the same way. Af­ter all, Spurs are now closer to Liver­pool than City.

He wears that im­age of be­muse­ment well. But, although Klopp can seem new and novel, he is a man­ager of 18 years’ ex­pe­ri­ence. He has known pro­mo­tion and rel­e­ga­tion with Mainz, he has won the Bun­desliga with Borus­sia Dort­mund. He has taken teams to Cham­pi­ons League fi­nals. And he knows about crowds roar­ing. In Raphael Honig­stein’s retelling of Dort­mund’s break­through ti­tle in 2011 in Klopp: Bring the Noise, he be­gins with Dort­mund’s sta­dium an­nouncer re­lay­ing news of a Bayer Lev­erkusen de­feat. Only Lev­erkusen could catch Dort­mund, so the ti­tle was won. This noise was brought to the play­ers on the pitch 20 min­utes from time.

Re­spon­si­ble cau­tion

Klopp would make us pause, say it was in April, not De­cem­ber. It was the cul­mi­na­tion of the sea­son, not its half­way point.

That is re­spon­si­ble cau­tion, it shows he has been here and done it. Even if his Liver­pool play­ers have not had this col­lec­tive ex­pe­ri­ence, the man­ager has dealt with the pres­sure, the con­stant ques­tions about ta­bles and ti­tles.

When al­lied to the mathematics, the fact Klopp has done it be­fore is a real plus for Liver­pool. Then there is the “hunger” Mats Hum­mels spoke of at Dort­mund, play­ers com­ing to­gether as a unit, spurring each other on. There is the sense – vis­i­ble on Wed­nes­day – of a team play­ing within it­self, able to raise the level, un­der­stand­ing its po­ten­tial. A team on the cusp of more, not less.

“We stopped ask­ing ques­tions,” Hum­mels said of the Dort­mund play­ers. “We knew ex­actly what the coach wanted us to do ... His clas­sic phrase was: ‘Run like there is no to­mor­row.’ ”

For Liver­pool, it is all about to­mor­row. It be­gins to­day against Arse­nal and then next Thurs­day at Manch­ester City, two matches to test depth. We shall see if Liver­pool have been play­ing within their ca­pa­bil­i­ties.

Un­like New­cas­tle on Wed­nes­day, nei­ther Arse­nal nor City will turn up to a gun­fight with a wa­ter pis­tol. Arse­nal have Pierre-Em­er­ick Aubameyang, whom Klopp signed for Dort­mund. City have their own fleet.

Goal­keeper Alis­son Becker kept an­other clean sheet on Wed­nes­day, his 12th in the Premier League, con­firm­ing it by block­ing a New­cas­tle shot in the 90th minute. There is no rea­son to sus­pect a sud­den sub­si­dence in that form.Alis­son’s save was in front of the Kop. It was met with a roar, an­other one, on a day when An­field re­alised what could be.

The vol­ume rose and rose. It was one of those oc­ca­sions when the crowd be­comes the ac­tion. These are al­ways bril­liant scenes, it’s just they nor­mally oc­cur on the sea­son’s fi­nal af­ter­noons, not in De­cem­ber

PHO­TO­GRAPH: PAUL EL­LIS/AFP/GETTY IM­AGES

Liver­pool fans on the Kop at An­field: the emo­tional in­vest­ment was ev­i­dent as news of Le­ices­ter’s win­ner against Manch­ester City spread.

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