Klopp admits Liverpool on brink of a milestone
Knockout stage awaits for first time since 2009 Manager wants Anfield at its ‘best’ for decisive tie
Jurgen Klopp has called on Liverpool to reach another significant checkpoint in the club’s re-emergence by reaching the knockout stage of the Champions League.
Not since 2009 have the Merseysiders participated in the elite competition beyond Christmas, a sobering recent record for a club that established its name with European Cup success.
They must avoid defeat by Spartak Moscow at Anfield tonight to escape their group. Klopp says that is the least Liverpool expect when they are in the competition.
“I am not sure exactly when last Liverpool reached the knockout. Eight years? A long time,” said Klopp. “You only play the group stage as Liverpool to come through to the last 16. We all know if we do [that] then we have a chance to reach the next round so first we have to make it. It is a tight group. We had some influence on that. We played good games and had good results but not enough points to go through already and now we have to finish the job.
“This is the game. We are only part of the Champions League because we want to go to the next round. It is all or nothing. A proper final. We know about the situation. They know about the situation. It is Champions League.
“It is always important but the last game of the group stage is most important if you have to play for something, which we obviously have. It is exciting.”
Liverpool’s progress under Klopp – while not swift enough for some harsher critics – is in line with reasonable expectations when he took charge just over two years ago.
This is only the third time the club have played in the Champions League since 2009. In 2010, under Rafa Benitez, and in 2014 under Brendan Rodgers, they found themselves dumped into the Europa League.
That is a fate Klopp is desperate to avoid. He compared the meeting with the Russian side to high pressure fixtures against Middlesbrough in the final game of last season – Liverpool had to win to finish fourth – and then the qualifying-round victory over Hoffenheim in August.
“We have to show up again,” he said. “There is pressure. We cannot ignore it. We are going for something big. We had it against Middlesbrough and Hoffenheim and we did it quite well so far and have to do it again. But Spartak is a good side. I cannot ignore that.
“They rested three or four players in the last game and still won. You can see. They have one more game and then three months’ break. They have their targets and we have ours. They are bringing back three important players: Quincy Promes, Ze Luis and Denis Glushakov. That is a fantastic side in a good moment.
“If someone has decided we are already through, then Moscow may think of the impressive win versus Sevilla. I see this as an opportunity. I don’t know if I can order it, but if I could order it this would be a good moment for Anfield to be at its best.”
Although he is still without centre-half Joel Matip because of a thigh injury, Ragnar Klavan and Joe Gomez are fit again after illness.
Klopp is expected to reunite his attacking quartet of Philippe Coutinho, Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane after several games of rotation.
Mane said he understood being rested, and clarified that a heated discussion with his manager at the end of the Premier League fixture with Chelsea was misunderstood.
“It was not because I was not playing. We have to respect this decision. The manager has to make it,” said Mane. “Honestly, I won’t lie. Every player would love to play every single game, every single weekend.
“That is our job and we are still young. But we have a good team and I am happy to respect the decision of the coach. Honestly. The team is always more important.”
The Senegal forward believes that if Liverpool can get through, anything is possible once the knockout phase begins.
“It is the dream of each player in the world and it is very important for us to be in the Champions League,” he said. “The fans deserve it, the club also. Liverpool is a big and great club; we want to play a big part in the Champions League. We want to go as far as we can.”
Klopp, meanwhile, has apologised to Brighton manager Chris Hughton for delaying a post-match handshake at the end of Saturday’s 5-1 victory.
There were suggestions Hughton was unhappy with Klopp’s goal celebrations, but it seems that was not the case. “It was a misunderstanding – nothing else. I went to go to Chris to shake his hand and Mo Salah passed my way so I gave him a hug and Chris wasn’t too happy,” said Klopp.
“For one or two times in my life I was disrespectful but I would never be in a moment like this disrespectful. I can only apologise, it was not my intention.” Dejan Lovren’s goal helped Liverpool to knock out Borussia Dortmund in the semi-final of last season’s Europa League.