- Victory in manager’s 100th European game will put side through
• Napoli arrive under a cloud after a falling-out behind the scenes
Andy Hunter – The Guardian
Jürgen Klopp, the Liverpool manager, has fond memories of his first European match in charge of Mainz – a 4-0 win against Mika Ashtarak Photograph: Richard Sellers/PA
Jürgen Klopp remembers the first time: 14 July 2005. He had just turned 38 when he encountered Armenia’s Mika Ashtarak and felt an excitement that has not dimmed in the intervening 14 years. The joy of European football. Against Napoli on Wednesday Klopp reaches the managerial milestone of 100 European games and although the stakes and expectations at Liverpool are far greater, that Uefa Cup qualifier with Mainz will always have a special place in his career.
“We played at home against [Mika] Ashtarak – that was my first one,” the Liverpool manager recalled. Klopp tends not to dwell on the past but was happy to make an exception before his European century. His debut with Mainz brought a 4-0 victory and a brief Uefa Cup foray that was ended by the eventual winners, Sevilla. It was also a fundamental part of his development into a Champions League-winning coach who, with another Anfield victory over Carlo Ancelotti’s team, would lead Liverpool into the knockout phase with a game to spare.
“Europe changes everything,” said Klopp. He was speaking of his outlook as a manager but the same applies to the confidence in his Liverpool team. “Nobody thought it would be possible when we played that game against Ashtarak. We got there by the Fair Play competition. It was a very big achievement for us. I know where I was when our sporting director telephoned me. I was on holiday. He called me and he said: ‘We play Europe.’
“It caused a lot of problems because it started so early. We had no pre-season and lost the first five Bundesliga games. It was like the Burnley situation last year. We suffered from it but we stayed in the league and all was good.
“In Armenia we arrived there and it was really warm. It was 40 degrees. Then we went to Iceland to play Keflavík. We played in Reykjavik. In the summer, it was minus something because the wind was so strong. I remember Sevilla. It is the stadium I hate most to play at and it started there. We got a draw, we deserved the draw but the atmosphere was completely new. Everybody hated us and I was like: ‘Why, what did we do?’ That was very special.
“So you have these experiences and you learn from them. It opens your mind. It was a very important part of development for me as a manager and for the specific teams always as well. It seems longer than 14 years ago. We have come a long way. It was just exciting – it still is exciting and I love it. It didn’t change.”
Liverpool are unbeaten in 24 European home games and have won their past 17 matches at Anfield in all competitions, if penalty shootouts are included. That is two games short of the club record set in 1972. Napoli are the only team to have prevented Klopp’s side from scoring in the past 25 matches although the Italian club have not won in nine visits to England and carry painful memories of last year’s elimination from the Champions League on Merseyside. Napoli can also qualify with a win – both teams will go through if RB Salzburg fail to beat Genk – and given Liverpool’s December schedule it would be a bonus for Klopp to get the job done before next month’s trip to Austria.
“Unfortunately I’m not too good at thinking about games we have next week or in two weeks,” he said. “The team selection is about winning this game and nothing else. What we have to be against Napoli for sure is as tuned as possible because they have such fixed patterns in their game that you need to have your own patterns as well.
“Against us they adapted really well always. We pressed them in a specific way and they reacted in the game and found another way to go through, especially in the home games. Our home game last year was an outstanding game. The pressure was massive and if Sadio [Mané] scored three or four that night nobody would have thought it was not possible. We had really big chances for that and played outstanding but in the end Ali [Alisson] had to save us. It is different if you play there or here but we have to make sure they feel the difference as well.”
Napoli arrive under a cloud, with Ancelotti and the players banned from speaking to the media in Italy by the club president, Aurelio De Laurentiis, having rebelled against his idea of a training camp after their home draw against RB Salzburg. De Laurentiis has fined his players too, but Klopp believes Napoli will view Anfield as an escape from the controversy.
“I met Carlo in Geneva on the Monday after the Manchester City game and we had a little chat about it,” he said. “He didn’t tell me a lot, I didn’t ask a lot, but everybody can read what is in the newspaper. Carlo was in really good shape. They will try everything. It must feel like a relief for them to play a big game away and not be faced with all the other things. We expect them to be absolutely at their best.”