The first time Jurgen Klopp went head-to-head with Unai Emery, it was a chastening experience for the German. The two men face off again tonight when Liverpool host Villarreal in the Champions League semi-final at Anfield.
The Merseyside club are the favourites to advance to the final in Paris but Klopp’s experience in another European showpiece game will make him wary of any team managed by his Spanish counterpart.
Emery was in charge of Seville in the Europa League final six years ago. It was the last game of Klopp’s first season at Anfield. As well as a trophy, the prize was qualification for the Champions League. Any chance of finishing in the top four in the Premier League slipped away in the final month of the campaign as Liverpool stumbled to eighth place.
Nevertheless, the mood was upbeat in Basel for the final. The general feeling among English-speaking pundits was that Klopp’s side had the advantage. That belief appeared justified when Daniel Sturridge scored a splendid goal to put Liverpool in front at the break.
The second half was arguably Klopp's lowest point as Liverpool manager. Within a minute of the kick-off, Seville had equalised. Emery’s tactical adjustments worked beautifully. By the time the Spanish side were leading 3-1, Klopp had abandoned attempts to reorganise his ragged team and was reduced to rabble-rousing the crowd with his back to the pitch. It was, frankly, embarrassing.
That seems so long ago. When Klopp was given the job in the previous October, he impressed Fenway Sports Group with his enthusiasm. He told the American owners that he expected to compete for all four trophies with the squad he inherited from Brendan Rodgers. It was just what FSG wanted to hear. They thought their recruitment strategy was working well and the mediocre performances were down to management. This was unfair to Rodgers. That stark night in Switzerland – and the league finish – showed that self-delusion is no substitute for strategy.
It is remarkable and a testament to Klopp’s genius that now, six years on, Liverpool really are in the hunt for a quadruple. The 54-year-old’s instincts were correct back in 2015. He was joining a club capable of challenging on all fronts.
Back then, there was a theory that Klopp could not win finals. The subtext to this viewpoint was somehow that his team folded under pressure in big games. That ghost has been well and truly laid to rest with Champions League and Carabao Cup victories. The relentless nature of Liverpool’s jousting with Manchester City in the Premier League has brought a cliché to life, too – every game is like a final. The squad FSG bequeathed to Klopp lacked mental toughness. Their new manager never did. After Basel – and for much of the next season – there were doubters even in the dressing room. Klopp’s personality is irrepressible though. By fine tuning the transfer policy and persuading the owners to acquire proven quality even if it meant spending big money, he bought a spine for the team while undergoing the process of changing the mentality at Anfield.
Emery was on a different trajectory. He went to Arsenal where backbone was in short supply in the immediate post-Arsene Wenger era. In their four meetings in England, the Spaniard was on the receiving end, drawing once and losing three times to Liverpool. The Villarreal boss had a close-up view of Klopp’s development in the Premier League. He knows he will not be up against the man who was forced to rely on the crowd in Basel.
Yet Emery cannot be judged on his time in north London. The 50-year-old has four European trophies under his belt, the most recent one delivered by last year’s Europa League final victory over Manchester United. Uefa’s secondary competition might be looked upon with disdain by those with Champions League pretensions, but winning the Europa League four times is an impressive feat. Now Emery has the chance to get to the big show. He and his team should not be underestimated.
Newcastle United were desperate to lure the former Arsenal manager from Spain last year because they believed that his skillset would have suited St James’ Park in both the short and long terms. Emery can set up teams to grind out results in the style of the best defensive coaches but he also has the knack of producing sides with a flash of flair that can deliver trophies. Newcastle’s advisers were particularly impressed with Emery’s ability to adapt to events during games and change the shape of his team. Liverpool will have to be close to their best to dispatch the Spanish club and must not make the mistake of allowing them to hang around in the game, as Bayern Munich did in the second leg of the quarter final. Tonight will be a night when Liverpool need to take their chances.
It won’t be the Emery of the Emirates that Klopp is up against. It will be the Emery of Basel. The big difference is that this time Klopp has a team built in his own image. In Switzerland he brought someone else’s knife to a gunfight. This time the Liverpool manager will be armed with heavy artillery.
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