“EVEN though I can’t play in the Champions League, it will still feel like mine. I will be part of it, for sure, training with the team and cheering them on.”
Which team will you be cheering on now, Philippe Coutinho?
When the football world switched its attention over from the Etihad, with Liverpool in a commanding lead, over to the Italian capital, where AS Roma were causing the most extraordinary of upsets over Barcelona, the clear irony was too tempting to ignore, and symbolised Jurgen Klopp’s masterpiece.
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Coutinho’s old team is in the final four. His current team is not.
The 25-year-old, of course, was cup-tied from playing for Barcelona in this season’s Champions League, but his move to Spain has certainly not hindered his former club.
Far from it.
The collective spirit, energy and unity of belief in his tactics that Klopp has engendered in this endearing Liverpool side meant that the absence of their Brazilian game breaker in 2018 has not stopped the Merseyside club reaching a first Champions League final four in a decade.
Indeed, the absence of captain Jordan Henderson through suspension, was overcome as well, in another sign of the tangible, deliberate and specific progress made under Klopp as his ethos emanates from this cohort in Red.
Where other managers may have panicked at Gabriel Jesus’ early goal, Klopp urged his side on, and their game plan was rewarded thanks to Mohamed Salah in the second-half.
Where Pep Guardiola took his frustrations out on the match officials, Klopp roused his side after they rode their luck in the first-half.
This outfit are the real deal in Europe, the only unbeaten team left in the Champions League, and also its top scorer, with 33 goals the most ever by an English side in a campaign.
Nothing suits Klopp’s rock and roll, high octane mentality than cup football. It might be exhausting to sustain throughout a 38-game league campaign, but nights like these are made for the emotion he evokes from his players, his club’s supporters and any neutral watching on.
“I really think they are the best team in the world at the moment, that’s how it is,” Klopp said. “But I knew we could beat them. That doesn’t make us a better team, that is just football and it is a good thing about the game. Anything is possible but it is difficult and it will be difficult again in the semi-final.”
Henry Winter, The Times’ Chief Football Writer, speaking on BBC Radio 5 Live, said of Klopp: “What I love about Klopp is he always looks like he is enjoying it. He’s a classy guy. If there was list of Premier League managers you want to go on a night out it is Klopp. He is enjoying his football and it is certainly enjoying watching it.”
We’ll hand it over to the German to sum up the clash perfectly, in his enigmatic fervour.
“It was quite difficult tonight, again especially with the start. This wonderful goal that we served them on a plate. I was expecting something like that but I liked the reaction immediately after that,” he told BT Sport.
“City took all the risks they could take, we needed a bit of luck and a disciplined defending formation. I was not overly happy at half-time to be honest.
“He (Pep Guardiola) took all the risks and it was his decision and it could’ve been the absolute right one, it’s easy to say afterwards. They could’ve scored two or three goals in the first half but it was 100% clear that if we win the ball we’d have an opportunity.
“The last situation in the first half was how you do the counter-attack and that’s how we scored the two goals. It’s not about perfection it’s about the result, the character, the mentality, really fighting for the result. We defended well, it’s not our best game but we deserved it at the end.”
He continued: “You have to learn from the game, I had no problem conceding the early goal but we were still moaning, having little fights, want free-kick’s where there were no free-kicks. That’s not how to play,” he said on BT Sport.
“We needed to be more compact, we shouted that like crazy. We needed to stay in the football playing mood, show up and want the ball. If you don’t score a second and third it’s not that easy and we used the momentum for us.
“If you score one goal the atmosphere is different – nobody goes to the semi-finals twice being the much better side.”
‘It is not about perfection’.
Whether or not that is a dig at Guardiola is hard to say, but as easy as it is for the post-mortem to this clash to focus on City’s capitulation, it should focus on Liverpool’s strength – one exploited by Guardiola, who extends his winning record over Klopp, and whose Liverpool side is the first to ever beat a Guardiola side three times in one season.
Indeed, the Citizens pounded Liverpool in the first-half in a relentlessly fast game plan that saw them hit the post and have a clear goal disallowed.
A bit of luck goes their way, and it’s 3-3 at the break. Kevin de Bruyne was dictating the game and the danger posed by Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling will surely cause their boss to reflect on his decisions in the first leg.
Guardiola gambled, naming something resembling a 3-1-4-2 but with such attacking intent it’s no wonder Sky’s computer combusted trying to organise a formation.
Virgil van Dijk wilted early, the Reds midfield was too deep, the gap between the midfield and attack was disjointed and City had Liverpool fans sweating bullets as they pushed them deeper.
But after inspired half-time words, the real Reds emerged.
This is not a team that needed a piece of Coutinho magic to bail them out. The collective did so, with the icing on the cake Salah, rewarding them for their efforts with his latest masterpiece.
Despite what City threw at them, this Liverpool side, often lampooned for their vulnerability, stood firm.
Goerginio Wijnaldum deputised magnificently for Henderson; the maligned Dejan Lovren and Loris Karius were strong again; Liverpool’s young fullbacks again grew in confidence, Roberto Firmino’s industry off the ball was as impressive as his work with it and then came Mane and Salah, swooping on City’s vulnerabilities.
If anyone wants a lesson in the transfer market, just look at Klopp.
He bought Salah for a £36.9 million steal in the summer, and then had the confidence in the machine he built to let his prized asset Coutinho go for £105 million in January.
Klopp’s project is paying off, and has no reason to fear a final four even if it lobs up a date with a Real Madrid or Bayern Munich.
BALAGUE ON COUTINHO’S BARCA START:
Despite the cruel irony from Barcelona’s exit, life isn’t so bad for their Brazilian signing, who will still finish the season with a La Liga medal.
“He is being looked after, and I think we will see a better Coutinho next season,” Spanish football expert Guillem Balague told Sky Sports last week.
“Both Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi have taken him under their wings. He lives next to both of them, they have good social lives together, and that will help.”
He added: “If he doesn’t improve next season, they may give him a bit more stick, but right now it is a process of adaptation which even somebody of his quality has to go through. Nobody doubts he will succeed in Barcelona”.
He continued: “I did say when he arrived that he is not a midfielder, he is a forward. Everyone spoke of him as a replacement for Iniesta; he is not that! Maybe he will become that, but it will take a while. Barcelona are aware he is not a midfielder, but he adds quality.
“Meanwhile, he has to find his best place, his best position on the pitch. He has sometimes started on the right, other times on the left, sometimes through the centre. The problem is he has come from quite a direct style at Liverpool.
“At Barca, it is about keeping position, waiting for the ball, and when you have it, deliver it quickly. There are also strict instructions on what to do without the ball. I think Coutinho still lacks answers to things that happen on the pitch. There is still a lot to learn.
“A lot of these things don’t come naturally to him, for example passing and moving, making the right run, a lot of the traits everyone in that team – Rakitic, Iniesta, Busquets, Messi, Suarez – have a PhD in for Barcelona. Coutinho has to learn it.”