With an attack of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane, Liverpool have the potential to blitz opponents and will cause sleepless nights for whichever team they are pitted against in Friday’s semi-final draw.
Few would have predicted Liverpool would be England’s last representative in the Champions League, particularly after they drew their opening two group games last September, so how has this transformation come about? Here are five ways that Jurgen Klopp has turned Liverpool’s fortunes around.
On the morning of September 27 last year, Klopp awoke to many headlines shining a light on what seemed to be an area of deficiency. Sportsmail’s take on a 1-1 draw with Spartak Moscow in Russia was ‘Coutinho saves day for Klopp’s misfiring Reds.’
Liverpool should have won on matchday two but had no end product after laying siege to Spartak’s goal in the second half. Daniel Sturridge, who was sent on to replace the out-of-sorts Sadio Mane, fluffed the best opportunity and, at that point, they faced a fight to get out of their group.
Since then, the improvement in chance conversion has been remarkable. They have plundered 30 goals in eight subsequent European fixtures, the only blank coming in a dead-rubber against Porto at Anfield. They are also the only team not to have lost in the Champions League.
ONE MAGICIAN, THREE MUSKETEERS
The anticipation, back in early January, was that Philippe Coutinho’s £146million sale to Barcelona would leave a hole in Liverpool’s team which was impossible to fill. The Brazilian had contributed five goals during the group stages and his departure was heavily mourned.
It would not be wrong to state that even inside the dressing room, where Coutinho was a popular figure, questions were asked about how he could be replaced. His team-mates understood why he wanted to leave but wondered if it was business that would fatally damage ambitions.
There are, however, some interesting numbers. Coutinho made 20 appearances in all competitions for Liverpool before heading to the Nou Camp but they won only eight (10 were drawn). In the 28 games without him, they have amassed 20 victories.
The biggest compliment you can pay Liverpool, then, is that not one match has been played since he moved to Spain when the question has been asked: ‘What if we had Coutinho?’ Salah, Mane and Firmino have been spectacular, while others — such as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain — have grown.
METHOD OF PLAY
Much is made about Klopp’s brand of ‘heavy metal football’ but the man himself shudders about the phrase. He has admitted, at times, that he wishes he’d never said it as there is far more to Liverpool than just running themselves into the ground.
The control you saw in the second half has come from methodical training sessions, overseen by Klopp and his influential assistant Zeljko Buvac, in which the players are drilled into being in specific areas, how to pass and when to pass in the ‘right spaces’ as Klopp calls them.
For all that Klopp is an emotional manager — and how the team feeds off the emotion of the fans — there was a lot of control about the way they played in the second half and were able to withstand the tempest that City unleashed before the break. It will serve them well in the semi-finals.
‘If we are not calm then we will concede,’ said Dejan Lovren. ‘It was about team work. Everyone did their job in both games. The competition is wide open and anything is possible now. Whoever we get will find it difficult to come to Anfield and score some goals.’
One little remark Klopp made on Monday about his squad resonated. ‘We are,’ he said, smiling, ‘a tight little group.’ Liverpool have injuries — key ones to players such as Emre Can and Adam Lallana — but it is a long time since the group has had such unity.
There were snapshots of this all around the Etihad on Tuesday night, from how Loris Karius ran 100 metres to join in the celebrations that followed Salah’s goal to captain Jordan Henderson trying his best to make Andrew Robertson laugh while he was conducting a television interview.
It was in these moments you appreciated what Klopp meant and it bodes well that if Liverpool find themselves in a tight spot in the semi-finals, the bond between the squad means they will not all end up playing like individuals.
Liverpool’s name carries weight in Europe but toppling Manchester City over two legs will have made the remaining participants sit up and take further notice. They are not, by any means, the finished article and the fact they trail City by such a distance in the Premier League shows how much improvement they still need to make.
But, if it comes down to a shootout, Liverpool are capable of beating anyone and the better the opponents, the more likely they are to raise their levels. Mats Hummels, the Bayern Munich defender, explained to Sportsmail earlier this month just what influence Klopp will have when it comes to the decisive moments.
‘His teams always perform at the highest when they face the best teams,’ said Hummels. ‘They work so hard, they play so intense and aggressively with the quality of players that they have — especially up front. I don’t think there was a team remaining who wanted to face this team. I know how good his teams are when they get to this level.’
Now the rest of the world are going to find out.