Liverpool had just overwhelmed Villarreal to clinch its place in the Europa League final when an emotional Jurgen Klopp raced onto the field and embraced his players, each hug appearing warm and genuine.
Klopp then walked on his own into the center circle, cupped his ear toward the applauding fans and took a bow. As he bounded toward the touchline, he leapt and punched the air wildly, each time drawing renewed cheers.
Anfield was in rapture once again.
“There’s something special brewing at Liverpool under Klopp,” former striker Michael Owen tweeted that night.
Klopp labeled himself “The Normal One” at his presentation as Liverpool manager in October. The bespectacled German has proved anything but that in his seven months in charge.
Engaging, quirky, funny, passionate adjectives that fans of Klopp’s previous club, Borussia Dortmund, will recognize. Most importantly, he’s bringing the best out of the team, suggesting the good times of the 1970s and `80s could be returning at Liverpool.
“I’m not sure it could be any better, in the case of my relationship with the club, fans, players,” Klopp said on Friday.
“No, it’s better than I could imagine.”
The last game of Klopp’s first season in charge at Liverpool could bring him his first piece of silverware at Anfield.
Liverpool plays Sevilla in the Europa League final in the Swiss city of Basel on Wednesday, its first time in a European showpiece since losing to AC Milan in the Champions League in 2007. Liverpool is an aristocrat of European soccer, a five-time European champion and a three-time winner of the now-defunct UEFA Cup. Not to forget its 18 English league titles, which are second only to Manchester United.
However, the club has won only one trophy _ the oft-maligned English League Cup in 2012 in a tough past decade that was initially marred by financial struggles.
The fans have been waiting for someone like Klopp to make them dream again. And the way Liverpool’s fans drove the team on to wins over United, Borussia Dortmund, and Villarreal on atmospheric Anfield nights in the Europa League knockout stages, they are starting to believe.
“We have a wonderful atmosphere. The best atmosphere maybe in the world at this moment,” Klopp said.
“For a lot of people, it was more difficult to enjoy Liverpool football in the last few years. Everyone was waiting for the moment when there is something to enjoy again. This team is giving these moments back.”
Klopp arrived as the replacement for fired Brendan Rodgers, with Liverpool stuttering in 10th place in the Premier League and having won four of its 11 games in all competitions up to that point. He’d been out of work since the previous May, when he quit Dortmund after seven years to take a sabbatical.
Liverpool has proved a perfect fit, just like Dortmund was. Both are working-class clubs, both have a passionate and loyal fanbase, and both warm to his approach of direct attacking football and high-energy pressing.
“He’s got the best out of his players _ he’s inspiring,” said Daniel Dunn, a Liverpool fan who was hanging around the entrance to the club’s Melwood training center on Friday. “I went to the first game under him, Tottenham away. You could see so much difference just in that game.”
Liverpool’s performances oscillated from the stunning (big away wins at Chelsea, Manchester City and Southampton) to the disappointing (losses to Newcastle and Watford) in Klopp’s first three months, as the players got used to his methods. Injuries were common and there was a maddening inconsistency.
“Up and downs, change of manager, new philosophy, we had to adapt to that,” Liverpool defender Kolo Toure said on Friday. “We’ve gone through a tough journey.”
The Reds have found more consistency since the turn of the year, reaching the League Cup final where they lost on penalties to Man City, and closing on _ but failing to breach _ the Premier League’s top four. Juggling domestic games and the Europa League is never easy, though, and Liverpool is relying on winning the Europa League to qualify for next season’s Champions League.
Win or lose against Sevilla, Toure said the “future is really bright at Liverpool” under Klopp.
“When you see him on the pitch, he’s really expressive but he is very calm, very intelligent, and at halftime he always analyses the game unbelievably,” Toure said. “I’m very impressed with the way he can cope with all the players … even the staff, everyone is really, really happy. That’s what a top manager does to keep his job for a long time.”
When Klopp was without work after Dortmund, his availability cast a shadow over many of soccer’s top managers. Liverpool moved quickly to get its man and hasn’t been disappointed. Rival teams might just be looking over in envy.
“It’s a good atmosphere around Liverpool Football Club,” he said. “That makes me really optimistic.”