Liverpool have no choice but to toss aside their sheepskin this weekend. They’re no longer fooling anyone and it was getting a bit smelly and ragged anyway.
This is a team of wolves.
Until this point in Europe they’ve successfully marketed themselves as plucky middleweights looking to take a swing at the big time, despite being able to field one of the most talented first XIs in world football under the command of a crazy German genius.
The reality is that getting to successive Champions League finals is no coincidence. Over the past two years, Jürgen Klopp has picked his moments perfectly. He’s known exactly when to underplay his hand, when to lie in wait and when to strike.
The appropriate game management will be vital against Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday. Unlike past opponents, he can’t rely on the Londoners to swagger into the Wanda Metropolitano Stadium with an air of superiority.
This time Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané are the unmistakable predators. They are now saddled with the very expectation they once used to their advantage.
The other issue Spurs present is that for supposed prey they contain a rather powerful bite. Harry Kane recovering in time from his injuries is an immeasurable boost to manager Mauricio Pochettino. He’s a player who punishes the smallest of mistakes and his presence alone is reason enough to adopt a more cautious approach.
With Son Heung-min and semifinal hero Lucas Moura also both enjoying a strong resurgence recently, Premier League player of the season Virgil van Dijk and his colleagues can take nothing for granted.
As gifted as they are up front, Spurs’ best chance of victory would be by turning this into a slugfest. In previous rounds against Ajax Amsterdam and Manchester City, two very different types of opposition, their advantage came from outlasting the other man, from not letting their heads drop even after conceding.
Liverpool, by contrast, have displayed their most stunning football in rapid, violent assaults. A much favoured City were welcomed to Anfield in the pivotal game of the run to last year’s final. Opening pleasantries were barely over when they found themselves crushed by a blur of Red.
Barcelona were similarly lured to their death in this edition’s famous semifinal. It wasn’t that Klopp inspired heart, it was his players’ pure velocity in their attack left no time to formulate a response.
The final is increasingly shaping up to be power versus guile. This is George Foreman against Muhammad Ali.
Still, this is very much Liverpool’s narrative. This week Klopp spoke about how painful it was to queue at Kiev airport last year — everyone just milling about in their tracksuits with their heads lowered. “But the plan was, we come again, we will be there again and now we are there, that is just incredible.
“I think pretty much each team that loses the final thinks we will put it right. They don’t all have the chance. It was the kickstart for the development of this team, 100 percent. This team does not even compare with the team of last year.”
Should the Reds be the ones to return to England with the trophy, it will be the perfect end to a story that has been in the making for two years. Which of course would be no consolation to Spurs, who are looking to write a little history themselves. Can they successfully stifle the Salah-led trident bearing down on them? Or maybe, just maybe, they’ll decide to go toe-to-toe. Ali, after all, knocked out Foreman by subverting all expectations and doing just that.