Liverpool is the English team that has had the most success in European competition. Five times, the Reds have lifted the European Cup, the last time in 2005. But the way things are in the money-dominated modern game, Liverpool was unlikely be in the final this year, like it is Saturday against Real Madrid (1:30 p.m., Ch. 9 in Kiev, Ukraine).
That the team has climbed back to the top of Europe — and back into the top four — owes to a club-wide effort of reinvention led by Jürgen Klopp, who has cemented his status as one of the greatest managers in soccer today.
Klopp is the rare manager who is revered everywhere he has been. At Mainz, he went from player to manager in the span of a few months and led the club to promotion. He turned Borussia Dortmund into that rarest of things, a counterweight to the almighty power of Bayern Munich in Germany.
And now, he is competing with the otherworldly financial might of Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea in England — and has overtaken them all in Europe.
His favored system is simple to describe, yet difficult to execute. Klopp’s teams focus on pressing the opponent all over the field, especially in the attacking half, in hopes of forcing turnovers in positions where Liverpool’s players will have a chance to score. It’s a system that has hassled some of the best teams in Europe, especially those fed on a steady diet of also-ran competition in domestic leagues that aren’t used to going toe-to-toe with an opponent in their own end of the field.
Occasionally, Liverpool struggles against lesser competition, because it can be hard to press an opponent that has no interest in holding on to the ball for any length of time. But against the best — teams used to controlling the game — it’s devastating.
This season’s domestic results are a good example of the uneven nature of Klopp’s system. Liverpool dominated Manchester City, even as City ran roughshod over the rest of England. Not only did Liverpool hand City its first league loss of the season, but it knocked the Citizens out of the Champions League, denying Pep Guardiola’s money-soaked side its ultimate goal.
At the same time, the Reds won just twice in six matches against the three relegated Premier League teams.
Liverpool owner John Henry, who also owns the Boston Red Sox, has plenty of money, but his team can’t compete financially with Europe’s richest teams. Even so, Klopp has built England’s highest-flying offensive side (apart from City), led by Premier League leading scorer Mo Salah. The Reds’ challenge Saturday in the Champions League is to dethrone Real Madrid, the two-time reigning champs.
Madrid is filled with superstars. It’s used to possessing the ball and demoralizing the competition with its firepower. In short, it’s exactly the kind of challenge Klopp and Liverpool love. It’s a chance for the Reds to get back where they want to be — the top of Europe.
• The most tantalizing tactical part of the Champions League final should be the matchup between Liverpool right winger Mo Salah and Real Madrid left back Marcelo. Despite his spot in the back line, Marcelo’s forward runs are a key to Madrid’s attack. It’ll be fascinating to see whether Marcelo stays back to help defensively against Salah, or vice versa — or if both teams just let the other take extra space offensively.
• FC Cincinnati, currently in the USL second division, is reportedly set to become the 24th MLS team next season. Nashville and Miami are set to join the year after that. Cincinnati would be in the same situation as Minnesota — an existing team that would have less than a year to plan for MLS play. Will it be more successful than the Loons were in their first year?
• French team Lyon became the first team to win three consecutive European Women’s Champions League titles, defeating Wolfsburg 4-1 in a game in which all five goals came in extra time. Imagine seeing Lyon, the best in Europe, take on North Carolina, which is currently dominating women’s soccer in the United States.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
English Championship: Fulham vs. Aston Villa, 11 a.m. Saturday, ESPN Plus. You will need ESPN’s online-only package to see it, but if you can find a way, the playoff final is one of the most entertaining — and lucrative — games of the English season. The winner will be in the Premier League next year. Both Fulham and Villa feel like they belong there.
NWSL: Orlando at Chicago, 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Lifetime. North Carolina is currently running away with the league lead, but Orlando and Chicago are among a group of five teams within three points of each other, behind the leaders. Games like this will determine which teams make the four-team playoffs at the end of the year.
MLS: Philadelphia at New York, 6 p.m. Saturday, ESPN Plus. The Red Bulls are on fire, with four consecutive victories, and striker Bradley Wright-Phillips is again atop the goal-scoring rankings in MLS. Philadelphia has struggled on the road, especially at New York. The Union needs a run like the Red Bulls’ to climb in the East standings.
MLS: Columbus at Kansas City, 5 p.m. Sunday, FS1. Atlanta and the New York teams have received all of the press out East this year, but Columbus is keeping pace. Out West, meanwhile, Kansas City appears to be the best the conference can offer. A visit to Kansas City is an opportunity to prove Columbus has what it takes to hang with the top teams.