PARIS — The biggest test of Liverpool, the team manager Jurgen Klopp has taken to calling his “mentality monsters,” has yet to come. There is little doubt Klopp’s side are among the finest in the Premier League and the Champions League today but the quest to amass the trophy haul befitting that status goes on.
As he surveyed the scene at the full-time whistle in the Stade de France after Saturday’s 1-0 loss to Real Madrid in the Champions League final, Klopp consoled each of his crestfallen players in turn, beginning a healing process that has to turn this latest disappointment into fuel to drive them on again next season.
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Sunday’s parade back home may help. The club took the decision to organize a celebration of their marathon 64-game campaign before knowing whether they would be able to show off the two prizes that matter most. Instead of an unprecedented quadruple, Klopp and his squad will only be able to hold the FA Cup and Carabao Cup aloft. For most teams in any ordinary season, that may rank as satisfied ones Liverpool sailed so close to immortality for so long this year that considered reflections will inevitably be tinged with a degree of disappointment.
After falling agonizingly short of the Premier League title in finishing second to Manchester City, they were beaten by a solitary unanswered goal as Real Madrid wrote a fresh page in history with a record-extending 14th European Cup success. Picking up these players to go again after such a remorseless campaign will not be easy, especially with a relatively short turnaround: Liverpool are expected to return to preseason at the beginning of July, around five weeks from now.
Klopp spoke defiantly about witnessing an evolution in his squad’s resolve to the extent he told supporters to “book the hotel” in Istanbul for next year’s final but a huge test of their character awaits. Any negative outcomes from Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah’s ongoing contract talks would make it bigger still.
“It is a fantastic group,” he said on Saturday night. “We will go again definitely. Tomorrow we will celebrate the season. It is good we don’t have to do that immediately but after a night’s sleep and maybe another speech from me, the boys will realize how special it was what we did. “
It is hard to identify much room for improvement in a team that played the maximum number of games possible in a season and fell short by the narrowest of margins but there were minor weaknesses exposed in Paris. For all their strengths — and particularly with Thiago Alcantara a doubt before kick-off to the extent he was pulled from the starting lineup and then restored to it in the 36-minute delay arising from the crowd issues outside the stadium — Liverpool do not quite possess the same level of class in central midfield as offered by Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Casemiro.
That trio is the same midfield which started the 2016 Champions League final and their quality hardens to this day. Kroos misplaced just six of his 82 passes, Modric just seven from 56. They struck an excellent balance in helping Madrid defend deep but transition on the counterattack, chiefly through Vinicius Junior’s fearsome pace and Karim Benzema’s relentless movement.
Similarly, England manager Gareth Southgate may have reacted with a knowing smile to Trent Alexander-Arnold losing Vinicius Junior for the game’s only goal. Federico Valverde’s 59th-minute driven cross found Alexander-Arnold napping at the back post, allowing Vinicius to tap-in which ultimately settled the contest.
It is precisely this sort of lapse in defensive concentration which has made Southgate so reticent in picking the right-back for England, concerned that one such moment could define a tournament. Alexander-Arnold’s quality of his going forward is unarguable and there is a strong case his attacking prowess his far outweighs any such defensive concerns, but nevertheless it is an area he could work on. He is the youngest player ever to start three Champions League finals and time is very much on his side.
And for a team which scored 94 goals in 38 Premier League games and possess a devastating array of attacking talent, the brutal fact remains that Liverpool played three cup finals this season and failed to score in any of them. That’s a total of 330 minutes, 61 shots, 17 on target and an xG of 5.7. Liverpool are so prolific so often that it is difficult to lay this at the feet of any one player. Real needed goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois to make the most saves (nine) in a Champions League final since records began in 2003.
At least two of them were jaw-dropping, once from Mane in the first half with help from his right-hand post and another eight minutes from time preventing Salah from equalizing with a stunning reflex stop. But none of the above criticisms should linger. The margins could not have been finer.
Liverpool have provided themselves worthy of consideration among the game’s modern-day greats long before Saturday. But now they have to do it all over again — and get the silverware to match.