In sport, ‘trespassers’ are celebrated, not prosecuted. In the football of the rich—the Champions League, that is—the present Liverpool team and Roma are the outsiders. In the 2018 football rich list, Liverpool are placed ninth, with a net revenue of £367 million. Roma are not even in the top 20—ranked 24th, with a net revenue of a little over £148 million. The Serie A also-rans pulled off the mother of all comebacks to topple Barcelona—the third in the money league. Liverpool handed a 5-1 defeat over two legs to Pep Guardiola’s highly-rated Manchester City to reach the Champions League last four for the first time since 2008.
Football of late has genuflected to the filthy rich. In August last year, Paris St-Germain forked out £198 million to land Neymar from Barcelona. A few months later, in January this year, Barcelona spent £142 million to prise out Liverpool’s talisman Philippe Coutinho. The latter is at the receiving end of some vigorous trolling from a section of the Liverpool fans at the moment, but that’s a different story. More importantly, transfer wars and super agents have reduced the Uefa Financial Fair Play to a bad joke. This is why Liverpool’s return to the European football aristocracy is so heartening. This is where the five-time European champions belong. Their steady upsurge under Jurgen Klopp is great news for the game.
Antonio Mateu Lahoz has had a habit of revelling in his eccentricities. The Spanish referee seeks spotlight. He also has had issues with Guardiola. Little wonder then that Lahoz became the central character in the return-leg quarterfinals at Etihad without even touching the ball. Down 3-0 in the first-leg, City came roaring back into the contest with an early goal from Gabriel Jesus on home patch. Then, on the stroke of half-time Leroy Sane scored, only to see Lahoz weirdly disallowing it for offside. It was amateurish from the match officials but in the context of the game, Guardiola’s half-time meltdown, for which he received his marching orders, was even worse. When City needed to retain their composure, their manager lost it.
His players, accordingly, fizzled after the break, losing the match and the tie. Guardiola expectedly took a dig at the referee post-match. “Mateu Lahoz is a special guy, he likes to be different. He likes to be special.”
Belittling Liverpool’s victory, however, would be preposterous. You don’t ride on lady luck alone to secure a 5-1 win against a side like Manchester City. The fact of the matter is that Klopp tactically outsmarted his City counterpart in both legs. Over the course of the season, he has gotten the better of Guardiola thrice—the Champions League and the Premier League combined. In the process, Klopp perhaps has laid down a marker with regard to countering City’s attacking threats. If you take Guardiola’s team out of their comfort zone, if you don’t give them the ball, the Blue Moon fades.
In the grand scheme of things, Liverpool’s resurgence continuing apace is a far bigger achievement for Klopp. The German has spent £221.3 million since his arrival at Anfield in October 2015. This includes £75 million for Virgil van Dijk.
Guardiola, on the other hand, took his spending beyond £450 million, in less than two years, with his signing of Aymeric Laporte in January. This is not an effort to run down the great Catalan manager and his team. The current fallow period notwithstanding, City have played some breathtaking football this term and will complete a League Cup and Premier League double later this month. But Klopp should be the runaway winner for the manager of the season award, because of his ability to produce champions out of the ordinary. He has made Mohamed Salah, a Jose Mourinho reject, world-class. Salah scored his 39th goal of the season against City. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has been a revelation at Anfield. Klopp has reinvigorated Roberto Firmino. Sadio Mane has become every defender’s nightmare. The full backs, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson, who choked City’s wing play, have improved immensely under Klopp. Alexander-Arnold, 19, has risen up the ranks at his boyhood club. Robertson has proved to be a £8-million bargain.
Back in October last year, when India hosted the U-17 Fifa World Cup, an England team support staff was effusive in his praise for Klopp. But what makes the 50-year-old so special? “Jurgen has an incredibly good knowledge of human nature and (he) knows which players fit, not only for their abilities, but also for their character,” the manager’s agent, Marc Kosicke, said during a recent interview with a German TV channel. Earlier, when Klopp had been helming Borussia Dortmund, the club CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke described the manager as ‘the Normal One’. This, in fact, is Klopp’s biggest strength. He keeps hyperbole and showmanship at arm’s length. The Reds are getting shaped in his philosophy.