In the minutes before Liverpool’s first leg against Leipzig, Jurgen Klopp made a point of reminding the players how good they actually are. The intention wasn’t just to rouse them out of one of the worst runs of domestic form the club had endured in years. It was to use the height of the occasion to clear the air, as well as some minds. The Liverpool players quickly felt differently, and thereby played more like their usual selves. They looked like champions again.
Many around the game already feel a sense of foreboding about that. Their quarter-final opponents Real Madrid would be the same, except they have even more experience than Liverpool of lifting it for the Champions League when in poor domestic form. Only three of their record 13 European Cups have come when they’ve also won the Spanish league.
It is why Klopp’s words went deeper, because the source of inspiration goes back even further. It is one of this great competition’s great contradictions.
Although this stage of the season is talked of as the most exacting level of football, where the very best teams will assert their quality, the reality is it has always been far more erratic. There are many times when it doesn’t reflect form or league position at all.
The Champions League has a long history of sides suffering dismal domestic form raising it when they get to the continent. Chelsea won it when they were in sixth in their league, Bayern Munich when they were in 10th. The lowest of all was Aston Villa in 1981-82, who lifted the European Cup despite sinking to 11th. It sounds like one of the competition’s most underappreciated feats, except it’s not quite as unprecedented as it would seem, particularly in an era when Nottingham Forest rose from the English second division to win it and retain it.
It is also why teams like Manchester City and the modern Bayern Munich maybe shouldn’t get too confident in their own commanding form. A Champions League tie, as Pep Guardiola knows all too well, can quickly go out of control.
All of this is down to much more than the luck of cup competitions, the “lack of guarantees”, as Bayern’s Karl-Heinz Rummenigge put it. A significant factor is the very prestige of the Champions League.
With good teams that are struggling, it is as if the unique grandeur of the games sufficiently focuses minds to bring out their true level. This happened with all of Bayern Munich 1974-75, Liverpool 1980-81, Real Madrid 1999-2000 and Milan 2006-07.
It may well happen to Liverpool 2021.
“In Europe, it was different,” Franz Beckenbauer said of that 1974-75 season. “We would reach the top of our game, when we couldn’t keep focus at home”
The pageantries of the competition help, as Wayne Rooney has explained.
“Even the music that plays when the teams line up is iconic. You get a tingle down your spine when you hear it. Champions League games are always night matches under the floodlights, which adds a bit of magic. You know you’re in something special.”
A continental win that goes against domestic form then only adds to that sense of momentum, and momentousness.
This is exactly what happened with Liverpool in 2005 and Chelsea in 2012. Around Anfield, Rafa Benitez used to openly ask people and players “why can’t we win it?” The squad began to believe it as the competition went on, especially after the quarter-final elimination of Juventus. Chelsea really had it after their comeback against Napoli.
It was why the old European Cup carried that sense of destiny about it, since it was won by many teams as a last great feat at the end of their cycle, because they had to first win the league to actually get into it.
The modern Champions League has skewed this, leaving a lot of superclubs at very different stages of development.
Hence Chelsea eventually winning it in what was otherwise one of their worst seasons during the Roman Abramovich era. They weren’t quite at the end of a cycle, in the way that is more true of this Liverpool, but had enough quality from many great cycles.
The grandeur can work the other way, in that sense, too. It can bring more out of weaker sides. The classic example of this are Liverpool 2005, although it’s also true that the heightened occasions better appealed to Rafa Benitez’s tactical mind.
“The better the opponent, the greater his gift for breaking down their strengths and incapacitating them,” Jamie Carragher wrote in his autobiography. “In the winner-takes-all bouts in Europe, where games are slower and more strategic and the intimidation of The Kop could be influential, we were a different animal, capable of executing Benítez’s vision regardless of personnel.”
This is what the Champions League, as much as any manager, can do. You only have to look at the subsequent career of Roberto Di Matteo for that.
The only quirk is that Chelsea 2012 win was the last time any team won it in that manner. All champions since have finished at least second in their domestic league, bar Madrid 2014, but they were only three points off top.
This season, however, has a different feel.
Liverpool are ominously stalking the field. Madrid have discovered some form. Chelsea may have the most in reserve. Erling Haaland may well be fired by what could be a final opportunity to do something with Borussia Dortmund.
Either way, the Champions League has long been a stage to forget domestic struggles, and do something that lasts in the memory.