Could Jurgen Klopp’s reputation withstand more Champions League final failure?
Laughter frequently punctuated proceedings as a relaxed-looking Klopp discussed his team’s preparations for Saturday night’s European showpiece.
It was classic Klopp: seriousness followed by flashes of that pearly white smile that has made the German such a popular figure at Anfield and – however begrudgingly – respected among his team’s rivals.
But amid the positivity as Klopp seeks to lead his famous, proud team to their sixth title in Europe’s top club competition, there is a lingering question that was also addressed on Friday: namely Klopp’s disastrous record in major finals.
KLOPP’S FINAL CURSE
And it really is a record that makes grim reading.
Since leading Borussia Dortmund to a 5-2 hammering over Bayern Munich in the German Cup final in 2012, Klopp has not savoured success in any of his subsequent six finals.
That started in 2013 when Dortmund lost to Bayern in a tense Champions League final at Wembley, triggering a jinx that saw defeat against the same opposition in the German Cup final in 2014.
Klopp met the same fate with Dortmund in the German Cup final a year later, on that occasion going down 3-1 to Wolfsburg.
After moving to Liverpool in October 2015, he has so far brought his final jinx with him.
He was denied his first chance of silverware with the club when they lost to Manchester City on penalties in the League Cup Final in February 2016, and further heartbreak came that season when they lost 3-1 to Sevilla in the Europa League final.
Last season, of course, was capped by the nightmare of Kiev, when two blunders by Loris Karius helped Real Madrid to a 3-1 win in the Champions League final.
When asked about his agonizing litany of oh-so-nears on Friday, Klopp joked that “in the last seven years I am world record holder in winning semi-finals...
“There can be moments that are unlucky and lucky, but I cannot change that. I understand luck as if you work for it then you get it from time to time."
So will Klopp finally be “lucky” on Saturday, and could his reputation with the Liverpool fans withstand more final failure?
Firstly, Liverpool head into the game against Spurs at the Wanda Metropolitano Stadium in a far better place, and as a far more well-rounded team, than they did against Madrid last season.
On that night in Kiev they were forced to contend with factors ranging from the unfortunate (the loss of Mohamed Salah to injury early on), to the ridiculous (Karius’ personal calamity), to the sublime (Gareth Bale’s stunning overhead kick).
Since then Klopp has worked shrewdly to fix the problems in the team.
The most glaring of those was in the goalkeeping department, where a record £67 million was spent to bring in Brazilian Alisson Becker from Roma last summer.
He followed the acquisition of center back Virgil Van Dijk earlier that year for £75 million, as Klopp set about finding the pieces to complete the puzzle of a team that so often dazzled going forwards but was prone to collapse in defense.
Van Dijk has truly shown his worth this season, adding a composure and authority to the Liverpool backline which, coupled with Alisson’s influence, has given a defensive surety to the team.
With the added steel of Fabinho – a £44 million signing from Monaco last summer – in midfield, Klopp has created a team capable of controlling games, rather than simply blitzing the opposition in frantic 10-minute bursts.
Liverpool now have stronger foundations on which to build their free-flowing football which so often culminates with one of the attacking trident of Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino.
The undeniable improvement to the team has so far, however, failed to yield tangible returns in the form of trophies.
This season, a Premier League campaign which saw them suffer just one defeat and rack up 97 points was still, agonizingly, not enough to seal a first league title in 29 years. And then there are those three lost finals.Also on rt.com So near, yet so far: Liverpool fall agonizingly short on the Premier League's dramatic final day
But this is where Klopp the man, as opposed to Klopp the manager, is such an important factor.
On moving to Liverpool in 2015, Klopp set about waging a campaign for the hearts as well as minds of the club’s fans in his relentlessly positive style.
Despite the lack of silerware and some missteps along the way – the questionable celebration of a late home draw against West Brom in December, barely two months into the job, stands out – it’s a war that Klopp has resoundingly won.
The German is revered by the Anfield faithful for the way he conducts himself, and the way he has forged such a bond with fans of a club with an acute sense of its own storied history as well as its link with the community.
It’s telling that, amid all the tension and frantic preparations for Saturday’s game in Madrid, Klopp took the time to record a video message for a Liverpool fan suffering from cancer.
Put simply, Klopp gets Liverpool: he’s in tune with the people, aware of the importance of a personal touch, even in an age when football stars threaten to get ever more distant from those whom, in reality, they play for.
So far, despite missing out on the pitch, Klopp has largely withstood any devaluation of his stock with Liverpool fans.
Indeed, on the eve of Madrid, it is higher than ever.
Which brings us back to our initial question: what would defeat on Saturday mean for Klopp and his reputation?
Liverpool are favorites to win the game. They finished a country mile ahead of Spurs in the league, and while their encounters this season have been tight – 2-1 to Liverpool both times – Klopp has a better, more complete team at his disposal, and one which has the experience of being at this stage last season.
While Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino shares many similarities with the way he operates (often wearing his heart on his sleeve, priding himself on forging strong, meaningful relationships with players), his team’s place in the final is far more unexpected, and feels far more of a bonus for Spurs fans.
But even though the added pressure as favorites is on Klopp and Liverpool – and they may well find themselves celebrating wildly in their thousands on Saturday night – there is the sense that defeat, however painful or unexpected, would not be fatal to what Klopp is building.
Sure, rival fans would gloat at yet another final failure, and Liverpool fans would be heartbroken at yet another opportunity gone begging.
But win or lose, they are well and truly on board for the journey Klopp is taking them on, even if that means another bump in the road.