Klopp puts his game face on
It was the moment Jurgen Klopp gave a sharp retort to a situation he usually treats lightly that you knew his mood was different.
Liverpool’s manager was unhappy with the way one of his answers in English was relayed in German, so took over responsibilities from the translator to give proper context to the local audience. Many thought Klopp would smile at the end but he said: ‘I’m in competition mode already.’
While Liverpool’s quest to win the Premier League is moving serenely, with them guaranteed to be top of the charts on Christmas Day, Europe offers no such guarantees and tonight in Austria the Champions League holders are walking a tightrope.
Chelsea, in 2012, were the last reigning champions not to reach the knockout phase but everything in Klopp’s demeanour and emotional words told you that his squad were not prepared to take their place.
Klopp, of course, has taken Liverpool to the last two finals but he became animated at the prospect of doing something not even the great sides of the 1970s managed by reaching three in a row. Red Bull Salzburg might be dangerous opponents but Klopp made a point of talking up his team.
‘Yes it is difficult but there is a job to do,’ he said when asked how the demands of playing every three or four days are affecting his players.
‘We don’t ask for excuses. We know our schedule. We know where we have to go. We played three days ago in Bournemouth a tough game, six days ago a very tough game against Everton. We play in another in four days a very tough game against Watford and then we fly to Qatar. We don’t expect drops in performance. We don’t accept drops — not just me, the boys too.
‘We ask ourselves for the highest concentration. Then we will see what we get for it. We are a group that is in the most intense period of our lives and we will try to enjoy it. It is difficult, no doubt about that — but there is nothing that can stop us.’
There is reason to believe that the higher the stakes, the better Liverpool are suited.
Klopp always felt Group E would come down to a last-night shootout against Salzburg, an adventurous side whose cutting edge is provided by Erling Braut Haaland, the hottest young striker on the continent who has 28 goals in 21 games this season.
It was never a scenario, though, that filled him with dread. On the contrary. The past two Champions League campaigns have both gone to the last round of matches, with the spectre of the Europa League looming but each time Liverpool went through the gears to beat Spartak Moscow and Napoli.
‘We are ready for a proper fight,’ said Klopp. ‘I can’t talk about special things. We know we have to give everything and that is what we will do. If Salzburg win the game they deserve it. If not, then we deserve it. We have to show that we deserve to go through.
‘We are really ambitious in this tournament. Really ambitious. So yeah, actually we want to go until the end again. We have nothing better to do in the middle of May or whenever the final is played, so let’s go for it.
‘We are not typical Champions League winners. We are ambitious like crazy. We will run for our lives. We will fight for every challenge. This is the most important game in our lives, because it is the next one. This has nothing to do with the situation in the Premier League. We know our future.’
There was barely of a flicker of a smile from Klopp. Perhaps it had something to do with the bright lights that we shining directly on to the stage but it was clear he meant business. The same was true for Jordan Henderson, who sat alongside him.
‘We want to continue to show how well we can play and how much we can improve as a team,’ said Henderson. ‘We still want to perform at a higher level. That’s always going to be the case no matter what competition it is.’
The potential, then, is there for fireworks. Liverpool will be at full strength but will need to be on guard to contain Haaland, the son of former Manchester City, Leeds and Nottingham Forest midfielder Alfie. The 19-year-old, a target for Manchester United, has aspirations of scoring a hat-trick.
‘I’m living the dream,’ said Haaland. ‘Matches like this are what you dream of so I am enjoying it. My focus now is on Salzburg and me as a player. It is not hard at all. I am enjoying every day playing football.’Daily Mail