Liverpool could become European champions this season … without actually being the best team in England.
Manchester City has already clinched the Premier League title. Liverpool will likely place anywhere between second and fourth domestically. And it doesn’t much matter, since all three spots will qualify them directly for next year’s Champions League, if winning this year’s edition doesn’t deliver that berth outright. The only difference is a few million pounds in prize money and bragging rights over some longtime rival or other — Manchester United or, to a lesser extent, Tottenham Hotspur.
It would, in fact, be Liverpool’s second European crown — and its third time in the final — since the Reds were last English champions.
Following its slaying of mighty City in the Champions League quarterfinals, by a whopping aggregate score of 5-1, Liverpool is a favorite to reach the final. It managed to avoid back-to-back incumbent champions Real Madrid and Bayern Munich in the draw and got AS Roma instead. The Italians are on an even unlikelier Cinderella run, having upset Barcelona in the last round, yet Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool is the favorite.
And if it reaches the title game, it will be the second time in three years that the German manager has led the club to a European final. In 2015-16, when Klopp had only taken over in October, the Reds reached the second-tier Europa League final, where Sevilla prevailed after Liverpool took a first-half lead.
Yet in spite of the steady progress in Europe, Liverpool doesn’t seem to have come substantially closer to winning the Premier League, for reasons we’ll get into. Which begs the question, does Klopp need to win the league to be a success in Liverpool? Or will a few deep European runs suffice?
Indeed, what will it take for him to enter the pantheon of the club’s great managers?
The Reds seem to be getting ever stronger. In the better part of three seasons under Klopp, the team will have progressed from an eighth place, to a fourth, and somewhere between fourth and second. And their core is young and hungry. Of their regulars, only James Milner is over 30. And if you take Adam Lallana (29) and Dejan Lovren (28) out of the equation, there is no habitual starter older than 27.
In RB Leipzig midfielder Naby Keita, Liverpool has already secured another big piece for next season. Other big transfers will surely follow with the nine-figure profit from Philippe Coutinho’s January sale to Barcelona burning a hole in the club’s pocket.
Yet Liverpool can never quite keep up with its rivals. Because others will load up too. While the Reds addressed some major needs over the last two transfer windows, everybody else was improving too. Manchester United invested heavily to add still more stars to its squad. Manchester City spent hundreds of millions just to shore up its defense. Chelsea bought a handful of pricey players merely to provide cover.
And the Reds lost arguably their best player in Coutinho. That’s still Liverpool’s reality. Their biggest stars tend not to stick around to bring the club all the way back to its 1970s/1980s glory. Michael Owen and Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano and Fernando Torres and Luis Suarez and Raheem Sterling: They all left in their primes, or sooner.
The remainder of the vaunted attacking quartet that started the season together — Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino — seems committed to stay. But they all are until Real Madrid or Barcelona comes calling.
Liverpool never seems to improve quite quickly enough to close the gap, however small it gets, even though it’s the ninth-highest grossing club in the world — a shade behind Chelsea, but well behind Arsenal and the two Manchester clubs.
Klopp is popular with fans for his immutable passion and histrionics on the sideline. And the players, of course, have nice things to say about him. But he might never get them over the hump, through no real fault of his own. And if he never wins it, will he be seen as a failure?
Surely not. Rafa Benitez never won the league with Liverpool. He placed in the top-4 four times in his six seasons in charge, from 2004-05 through 2009-10, coming third, third, fourth and second in consecutive years. But then he brought Liverpool to the Champions League final twice, winning the first time around in a miraculous comeback against AC Milan — which would get revenge in the rematch two years later. Benitez is remembered as a great modern Liverpool manager.
Klopp’s winning percentage of 53.38 percent stands as the second-best since Kenny Dalglish’s fabled (first) run from 1985 until early 1991. Only Benitez’s is better. And he’s on the verge of his second European final.
The key here is context. Liverpool will likely never again dominate the way it did in the 1970s — four league titles and two European cups — or the 1980s — six league titles and two European cups. There’s a whole host of reasons for that, but it largely boils down to the league being a good deal more competitive now, and no longer prone to being dominated by one team for long stretches.
You can’t, therefore, measure Klopp against the Bob Paisleys and Bill Shankleys and Dalglishes. And absent the weighty prerequisite that he win the league, Klopp seems on his way to Liverpool greatness.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.