Saturday 16 December 2017

Klopp bites his nails

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp is on the cusp of qualification for the Champions League
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp is on the cusp of qualification for the Champions League

Anyone who was at Anfield when Michael Thomas silenced the Kop in 1989 saw the devastation a final day collapse brings. There's nothing quite like it.

It was an almost unthinkable body blow just four weeks after the awful events at Hillsborough and it seemed preordained that Liverpool should win.

But football is football and it didn't work out the way.

Tomorrow, Jurgen Klopp and the red half of Merseyside will be living on their nerves and once again, the Gunners lie in wait should there be a final day flop.

Those old enough on the Kop will remember a team fighting for titles. Klopp is scrapping desperately for credibility.

Champions League football is as important to Klopp and this version of Liverpool as the title was to Kenny Dalglish all those years ago.

Theo Foley, then Arsenal No. 2 to George Graham was a Herald columnist at the time and he invited a few of us over for that fateful night.

Sitting among the away support on a sultry May evening at Anfield with the title on the line and Liverpool oozing class and confidence was an experience complicated by the fact that the very tall Niall Quinn had the seat in front.

There were Irishmen everywhere on the pitch. Aldo, Stan, Razor and Ronnie for Liverpool and Dave O'Leary for Arsenal.

And when Thomas left Ray Houghton for dead and buried the Gunners second and what proved to be decisive goal, it was only polite to abandon neutrality and behave like a temporary Gooner.

This was made easier by Foley's arrival on the scene with a giant inflatable champagne bottle.

It was glory for Arsenal but in the streets around the ground after the game, Liverpool fans looked dazed and distraught, roughly the same as they will look tomorrow if they mess up against Middlesbrough.

These were fans who had just seen a team with John Aldridge and Ian Rush fail to score at home and lose the title as a result.

In fact, Liverpool had never lost a game with Aldo and Rush up front and these were supporters graced with the certainty two decades of title wins brings.

They expected nothing less than the title and couldn't believe what they had witnessed at Fortress Anfield.

Nowadays, the Liverpool faithful lurch from one game to the next, not really sure what they will see and the weaker the opposition, the greater the risk of mishap.

Middlesbrough should be a cakewalk but the final day does strange things to a professional footballer's brain and if there is a group likely to have a fragile moment, it's Liverpool.

Jose Mourinho claimed that losing the Europa League final would cost Manchester United £50m and the same kind of cash is at stake for Klopp and the Fenway group if they fall short.

But much more important than the money is the status Champions League football brings to a club in the transfer market.

Antoine Griezmann's agent laid it on the line for Jose Mourinho a month ago when he set Europe's top competition as the minimum requirement for anyone interested in buying the Frenchman.

Perhaps Klopp won't be shopping at that level of the market but there is an expectation that he will end up in August with a chunky deficit to report to John Henry after spending significant money to strengthen a squad which has been brittle and under-staffed for years.

Champions League qualification gives him the credibility to convince players that Liverpool is a worthy destination

There is, of course, another dynamic in play tomorrow. Arsene Wenger is hanging on grimly to the hope that an improbable set of results involving Manchester City and Liverpool both losing and the Gunners beating Everton would give him third place.

In that scenario, City would finish fourth and Liverpool the Europa League booby prize.

Ultimately, Wenger's fate may not rest on an FA Cup victory next week against Chelsea and a Top Four finish but he has an uncanny knack of pulling something out of the fire when he needs it most.

Klopp is on a different path, an upward curve with Liverpool and if his players do the job properly against a relegated team, he can claim progress.

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