Scott Groom discusses the incredible difference between the Liverpool side that appeared in the Europa League final two years ago and the one that will appear in the Champions League final on Saturday.
Liverpool’s impending date with Real Madrid in the Champions League final has earned Jürgen Klopp and his side all the more plaudits than they had already gained this season, with many praising the rapid progress Liverpool are making under the guidance of the former Borussia Dortmund coach.
However, both Klopp and everyone else associated with Liverpool will be hoping for a different outcome compared to the last time they reached a European final (the Europa League final back in 2016, remember that?) And go all the way and lift the trophy in Kiev.
So just how far have Liverpool come since their last shot at a European title? It feels like a lot has happened in that two-year spell since Sevilla put The Reds to the sword in the second half, eventually emerging 3-1 winners in Basel.
It perhaps feels like so much has happened between now and then as Klopp’s side have provided us with some much entertainment, so many memories since then, and the squad has been on such an incredible journey both in terms of its mentality and its maturity on the field.
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It was silly mistakes that cost Liverpool in Basel; lapses in concentration at the back, poor game management to let a goal in after less than a minute of the second half, and not enough mental steel to get back into the game.
Defensively, there were some woeful decisions made, not least by Alberto Moreno who had a nightmare against his old team – and that’s being kind to him. But he is not the only one who was to blame, but he epitomised the lack of assurance Liverpool’s defence showed that night.
Fast forward to present day, and those ghosts in the closet seem to have been scared back into their place. A calmness surrounds Liverpool’s defence now, a grit, a feeling of composure and most importantly trust.
Virgil Van Dijk, Andy Robertson and young Trent Alexander-Arnold must take so much praise for that, as should keeper Loris Karius. This is also not forgetting Dejan Lovren, who, for the most part of the season, has partnered Virgil at the back and has improved after a torrid first half of the season.
This maturity has not only been shown in how The Reds have gone about their business in the Champions League, especially in the quarter-final second leg at The Etihad, but in the league too. Their game management has been noticeably better and defending on a whole has improved. Set pieces are suddenly not such an Achilles heel and we look confident. Good signs heading into what will be the sternest test of the lot in Kiev.
I mentioned the personnel in Liverpool’s defence just now but it’s not just there that there’s something to talk about. This squad, which Klopp has been carefully moulding for the last two years is now something which resembles ‘his’ team rather than the one he inherited from Brendan Rodgers and had to guide through that Europa League final.
Players like Mané, Salah, Robertson, van Dijk, Wijnaldum and Oxlade-Chamberlain who fit in with his system so well have come in and done such a superb job.
Players like Firmino, Henderson and Milner, survivors of Rodgers’ reign, have come on leaps and bounds since Klopp took over and now look even better than I think most fans ever imagined. The point being – this is a Klopp team playing for Klopp with their hearts and souls.
Madrid may have all the money in the world, but you can’t buy the togetherness that this Liverpool squad has. The work ethic or hunger, either. It’s dangerous and contagious.
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Speaking of danger – we haven’t even mentioned the potent attack Klopp has at his disposal yet. It’s fair to say though, that in the last European final, his options weren’t so bad either.
He had Firmino, Coutinho, Sturridge and Origi to call on, with Sturridge scoring an absolute delightful goal to put Liverpool 1-0 up before half time against Sevilla. There are players there that should have caused even more of a threat than they did, but again, in comparison to present day, I know which option I’d rather have.
Even with the loss of Coutinho during the January window, Liverpool have become stronger in attack and the trio of Mané, Salah and Firmino must be giving Sergio Ramos and co. sleepless nights before the final.
Their industry and killer instinct is incredible and may well prove to be the difference on the night in Ukraine, as they so often have done throughout this season in all competitions. It’s been enough to see teams off within a 15-minute spell in some games and could potentially do the same to Madrid if they do not prepare properly.
Even if they do, there’s no stopping Liverpool sometimes!
In essence, it may only have been two years since their last final which is a short space of time all things considered, but the difference between that Liverpool and this one is vast. Mentality, approach and attitude may only seem like drops in the ocean, but they’re quite more than that.