LIVERPOOL, England – Liverpool FC’s rich continental tapestry has left Jurgen Klopp facing a difficult balancing act.
Last season’s run to the UEFA Champions League final reignited their love affair, and a 3-2 win in Tuesday’s Group C opener over Paris Saint-Germain failed to dampen that appetite.
Some had argued that the Reds should consider de-prioritizing Europe’s premier club competition to conserve energy for a Premier League title bid, as the only team truly capable of dethroning Manchester City, instead of attempting to fight on multiple fronts.
But European nights at Anfield retain an unmistakable and even intoxicating allure, permeated by visceral tones, billowing coloured smoke, an aroma of cordite and euphoria; the latter onset by substitute Roberto Firmino’s injury-time winner.
If anything, Klopp’s dilemma is largely self-inflicted, with his most ardent detractors continuing to argue that a Gegenpressing philosophy is unsustainable over the course of an entire season. Maintaining it across a 90-minute spell remains the first uphill battle.
His side overwhelmed the French champions by swarming them at the outset with an air of fearlessness which would not appear out of place in the archive from Liverpool’s heyday. By the game’s final third, the physical demands appeared to be finally starting to tell.
“If you play against PSG, you have to step up. You have to reach the next level,” Klopp insisted. “You cannot play 95 per cent and we lose 5-0. [Playing at] 100 per cent and we can win the game so that’s it.
“Denying them so often tonight, I don’t think a lot of teams did that so far. I don’t remember a lot of clear chances but maybe when I watch the game I will see them.
“We had our little breaks today when we had the ball because they had to deal with our passing as well. We used the wings and that’s what we wanted [in the] second half.”
An illustrious past often proves to be the petard by which Liverpool’s modern managers ultimately fall. A domestic drought dating back to 1990 tends to override Champions League contention but those before Klopp fell victim to the latter as much as the former.
With five titles to their name in this tournament, however, their pedigree is indisputable, while PSG show few signs of establishing themselves as little more than great pretenders.
Manager Thomas Tuchel insists that his tenure with Les Parisiens will not be determined by a measure of Champions League progress but it does not bode well for the German, the fourth manager appointed since the 2011 takeover of Qatar Sports Investments.
Between them, his predecessors lifted 20 domestic honours, five of them Ligue 1 titles, yet still departed following fruitless pursuits of the ultimate holy grail. Like Unai Emery before him, Tuchel is another ambitious coach seeking to break that continental cycle deadlock.
He was already under no illusions about the power that Liverpool’s iconic home wields after Borussia Dortmund succumbed to a second-half fightback in their 2016 Europa League quarterfinal defeat. Beyond his employers, little appears to have changed since.
“For me, the result is not logical or correct,” Tuchel said post-match.
“We conceded two goals in the first half but never at any point did we lose our confidence. We played with a lot of bravery, a lot of mental strength. Maybe in the second half we started to give the ball away a little too easily.
“But this is Anfield. Jurgen Klopp has worked with his team for four years now, and this is what Liverpool do. They press you and make it hard for you in possession.”
Elevating PSG beyond their long-standing status as the epitome of football’s nouvelle riche may prove easier said than done as Neymar’s presence in the French capital continues to generate more column inches than it is ever likely to yield elite-level accolades.
He appeared borderline immortal at Barcelona on the biggest stage but was made to look distinctly average on Merseyside, evidenced by the ease with which Trent Alexander-Arnold, still only 19, was able to shackle the Brazil international during this encounter.
As one prodigal son faltered, another found disquiet redemption. Daniel Sturridge’s first Champions League start in almost six years provided an opportunity to atone for lost time. The striker’s Anfield career had appeared at the point of no return last term but regained Klopp’s trust as an auxiliary front man as Firmino was rested at the outset.
Cumulative injuries and the sceptre of Firmino, Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane’s collective firepower had rendered Sturridge something of a forgotten man. His bullet header in front of the Kop served as a reminder of the pivotal role he can play, if in a reduced capacity.
That aforementioned triumvirate have now plundered a combined 100 goals since the start of last season. Firmino’s decisive strike came from the Anfield playbook, with the game hanging in the balance and the Brazilian elected as the last throw of the dice.
The whole of Europe has become as familiar with this particular drill as Liverpool themselves.
Tuchel surmised it best: this is just what they do.
Richard Buxton is a UK-based writer and special correspondent for Sportsnet. He filed this report from Liverpool’s Anfield Stadium.