Liverpool have grown used to seeing their prized assets snatched away by Spanish giants over the past decade, but the sale of Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona has helped lay the foundations for a successful rebuild at Anfield.
Coutinho, who has struggled to match the expectations of his £142 million price tag, will come up against his former team at the Camp Nou on Wednesday as Liverpool travel to Catalonia for the first leg of their Champions League semi-final on the back of a 10-game winning run.
Liverpool learned their lesson from the departures of Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano to Madrid and Barcelona that quickly dismantled the title-challenging team put together by Rafael Benitez and the devastating effect of losing Luis Suarez to Barca had five years ago.
With the Spanish champions desperate for star power when Neymar walked out to join Paris Saint-Germain in August 2017, the Reds hierarchy dug their heels in and drove the price up for the Brazilian.
Coutinho finally got his dream move in January 2018, but by that time the centrepiece to the construction that has seen Jurgen Klopp reawake the five-time European champions as a force on the continent had been put in place.
Virgil van Dijk’s £75 million move from Southampton made the Dutchman the world’s most expensive defender ever and was roundly questioned at the time.
However, his impact has been so transformational on Liverpool’s hitherto leaky backline that he became the first defender in 14 years to be crowned the Premier League players’ player of the year on Sunday.
“From the first moment I was so excited about the opportunity to work together and now you are the man,” said Klopp in his congratulatory message to his talismanic centre-back.
Coutinho’s five years at Anfield produced plenty of spectacular goals, but he did not win a trophy and Liverpool only even qualified for the Champions League twice in that time.
Van Dijk’s first five months helped nail down a top-four Premier League finish and a run to last season’s Champions League final, which ended in a 3-1 defeat to Real Madrid thanks to two huge errors from goalkeeper Loris Karius.
Coutinho money reinvested
More of the Coutinho money was then spent on recruiting Brazilian number one Alisson Becker from Roma, while Klopp’s midfield options were bolstered by the arrival of Fabinho, Naby Keita and Xherdan Shaqiri last summer.
Liverpool were also able to tie down the prolific front three of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino on long-term contracts to ensure they stay put or command huge fees to leave like Coutinho.
That excellent off-field organisation has been rewarded on the pitch by a club record points tally of 91 with two Premier League games of the campaign still to go.
Klopp has described delivering a first top-flight title in 29 years as the “holy grail”, but his side would still need a slip up by relentless defending champions Manchester City to win the league.
For all the progress made, the German is yet to win a trophy since arriving at Anfield in October 2015.
The pain of missing out on the Premier League once more despite a record-breaking campaign would be eased substantially if there was a Champions League final against Tottenham or Ajax to look forward to on June 1.
And beating Barca would carry the extra satisfaction of showing Coutinho how little he has been missed on Merseyside.
Truth be told, Burnley are equally capable – if not more so on current form – of taking points away from Manchester City on Sunday as Manchester United were in the midweek derby.
Yet, when the blue half triumphed at Old Trafford, many declared the Premier League title race concluded with the defending champions destined to reign supreme once more.
It seemed people needed reminding of Liverpool‘s mentality and how they plan to approach the season’s run-in. A resounding 5-0 thrashing of relegated Huddersfield Town on Saturday did precisely that.
Yes, the level of opposition was modest to put it mildly but the manner of the result fired a warning to Pep Guardiola’s side who led the standings by a single point – there is ZERO margin for error.
With James Milner the only Liverpool player to have lifted the Premier League trophy, a lack of experience has been cited as an impediment of their title ambitions. However, as wave after wave of attack relentlessly rolled towards the Huddersfield goal at Anfield, the collective hunger and desire of the current contingent was palpable – perhaps negating the necessity of housing more previous winners.
The Reds tangle with Barcelona in the Champions League semi-finals on Wednesday night whose own title charge has slowed down to a leisurely stroll in recent weeks, affording Ernesto Valverde the luxury of resting key players. Logic would dictate Jurgen Klopp’s troops take their foot off the gas and conserve energy, particularly during the second half on Saturday having secured a 3-0 lead at the break.
But this Liverpool side does not let up. They have fangs where others only had teeth and there was no mercy in sight for the whimpering Terriers, sent home with their tails between their legs. Such is their rabid hunt for glory that their fierce competitiveness is evident within the team.
In Sadio Mane (20) and Mohamed Salah (21) – both scoring twice on Saturday – they boast two forwards leading the goal-scoring charts, neck and neck in the race for the Golden Boot. Full-backs Andrew Robertson (11) and Trent-Alexander Arnold (nine) are in the midst of their own personal duel, vying to register more assists than the other.
Whether or not their unrelenting nature is rewarded this season is uncertain but it does guarantee a sustained challenge for silverware for the foreseeable future. Not only does this squad have a ravenous focus to succeed but its configuration ticks the right boxes as well with most of their first team enjoying their prime years.
If City do indeed retain the title, they would’ve done so with a Herculean task, one they will struggle to repeat in the following season. Meanwhile, it’s conceivable that the Reds could only go from strength to strength over the next couple of seasons at least.
Along with Paris Saint-Germain, City’s lavish spending in the transfer market has come under severe scrutiny owing to Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations. As such, it’s widely believed they will be forced to show restraint during this summer’s window.
Granted, the Citizens already boast perhaps the most complete squad in the England but there’s always room for improvement, especially if they plan to keep Liverpool at bay.
After losing out to Chelsea for Jorginho last summer, the priority must be to recruit a successor for Fernandinho who turns 34 next week while Benjamin Mendy’s regular injury woes mean another left-back would be ideal. There’s also a case to add a third striker into the mix. Sergio Aguero has performed remarkably but the Argentine has rarely proved capable of lasting an entire season and turns 31 this summer while Gabriel Jesus’ glaring dip in form is cause for concern.
Liverpool on the other hand have fewer concerns and a greater ability to invest. An upgrade from Daniel Sturridge as deputy or even competition for Roberto Firmino could be considered as could a more accomplished central defensive partner for Virgil van Dijk.
They may even choose to capitalise on their current standing in Europe by snapping up a future superstar whether that is Jadon Sancho, Joao Felix, Kai Havertz, Matthijs de Ligt or someone else.
So finely are their fortunes poised at the moment that Liverpool could just as easily end the campaign trophyless or with a historic double.
Either way, at least their fans are safe in the knowledge that – even in the event of failure – there will be no fading into the abyss, not this time. There are more challenges ahead and more shots at glory.
Jurgen Klopp insists Liverpool must stay focused on their final fixtures of the season and ignore the possibility of Manchester City slipping up at the conclusion of an exhilarating Premier League title race.
The Reds moved back to the top of the table with a comprehensive 5-0 victory over relegated Huddersfield, with Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah each bagging a brace following Naby Keita’s opener after only 15 seconds.
City will return to the summit if they overcome Burnley on Sunday, but Klopp stressed he is not counting on Pep Guardiola’s side suffering a surprise setback.
Instead, the Liverpool manager feels his side need only to concentrate on next Saturday’s trip to Newcastle in their penultimate league fixture and then the visit of Wolves the following weekend.
He said: “Why should we think where City could slip or not? We play Newcastle in the league, Newcastle – that’s their last home game.
“I’m not sure if there is a traditionally outstanding relationship between the cities or something like that or an exchange of points when you need it.
“It’s not like it is, we will go there and they will fight, they fight with all they have in their last home game and we have to be ready. We don’t have to think about anything else.
“And then last game (against Wolves) – wow. Maybe it’s like this, if they win then they are for sure seventh in the league, if they want to go for that then you will see that as well. It’s a really difficult team to play against.
“If we do the job in these two games and something happens in the other games then we are there, if not then we still did our best, our 100 per cent best and that’s the only thing we can really expect from us.
“You cannot ask for luck, you cannot ask for destiny, you have to work for it and then the rest around it happens and that’s exactly what we do.”
In ruthlessly dispatching Huddersfield, Liverpool moved on to 91 points – a total that would already be enough to have secured the league title in many seasons gone by.
Klopp added: “If we can have 97 (points) then let’s go for it, let’s go for it and then we’ll see. It’s still history. We said we wanted to create our own history, that’s what we tried, that’s what the boys did.
“These boys are outstanding, they are the reason we are where we are now. Let’s carry on and we will see where it ends.”
With Liverpool leading 4-0, Klopp introduced Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain after 73 minutes for the England midfielder’s first appearance in more than a year.
Oxlade-Chamberlain has been sidelined with a serious knee injury but almost marked his return in sensational style, deftly turning past a defender only to see his shot saved by the legs of Huddersfield goalkeeper Jonas Lossl.
Klopp, though, was delighted to see the former Arsenal man back in action, saying: “It was a wonderful situation and it would have been goal of the season if he could have scored that one.
“Brilliant play, brilliant move, everything until he unfortunately doesn’t hit the ball right. But it was an important step for him and for us.”
Huddersfield boss Jan Siewert was far from downcast after yet another defeat for his rock-bottom side.
He felt they reacted well to falling behind in the opening seconds and stayed true to his blueprint of positive football, which he intends to maintain.
Siewert said: “There were two managers who really liked attacking football and you could see that through the whole of the game.
“After the first minute we were definitely on the back foot, but just with the result because on the pitch we stayed on the front foot, which maybe impressed also them because after the goal the next 15 minutes were ours.
“We showed our fight and said, ‘We go there and we go forward’ because this is my idea of football. I know this, at the end, will lead to results. We stayed brave and we had possibilities.”
Provided by Press Association Sport