Liverpool’s first European encounter with a team led by Unai Emery made a miserable impression on Jordan Henderson, yet Jürgen Klopp’s reaction to that defeat by Sevilla in the 2016 Europa League final would leave a lasting one. It was, the Liverpool captain reflects, the start of the stunning chapter that could include a third Champions League final appearance in five seasons in Paris next month.
Emery’s Villarreal stand in the way of that ambition at Anfield on Wednesday and at the 23,500-capacity El Madrigal stadium next Tuesday.
It was Marcelino’s Villarreal in the 2016 Europa League semi-finals and, after Liverpool’s 3-1 aggregate victory, Emery’s Sevilla denied Klopp a European trophy and passage into the Champions League at the end of his debut season at Anfield. As Sevilla celebrated a third successive triumph in the competition under Emery, Liverpool retreated to the Novotel Basel City hotel to lick the wounds of a 3-1 defeat. Henderson, an unused substitute at St Jakob Park after sustaining a serious knee injury in the quarter-final at Borussia Dortmund, wanted to be alone. Klopp had other ideas.
“That night always sticks out,” the midfielder recalled on Tuesday. “Because I remember after the game going back to the hotel and the lads were all very disappointed and just wanted to go back to their room, not see anyone and get their heads down. But the gaffer was different to what you expect. He got everyone together downstairs in the bar area and we all spent the night together. It felt as though he knew this was the beginning, the start of something special to come. As a player it is very difficult to think like that then when you’ve just lost a final but I always felt he was very different to anything I’d seen before.
“That night always sticks out in my mind: he sort of knew what was coming in the next few years. He has produced that and proven that was the beginning of something special.”
Klopp, who has won all three of his European semi-finals as Liverpool manager, claims he was not as certain about the success that lay ahead as it may have seemed in the Novotel bar. “I said that night that we would come back, but without knowing we would come back! But at that moment I really thought we had a chance to come back stronger, and we did,” he said.
“That night was a tough one to take; we had a really good first half, should have scored more. But it was game number 64 in the season, an incredibly tough season, a lot of injury problems, players only came back a few days before the final. Would anything have been different since then had we won that night? I don’t think so. I would have loved it if we lifted the trophy that night but you have to try and learn from these things.”
Henderson believed Liverpool were on to something special the moment Klopp arrived at Anfield in October 2015, although it was the confidence the manager projected after defeat in Basel that made a difference.
“As soon as the manager came in he gave a lift to the whole club, the team, everybody really, but it is difficult when you lose a European final because you are so focused on that night because you have been so close,” Henderson said. “I think the manager had a very good way of seeing the bigger picture and using that experience to our benefit going forward. His mentality was different, I felt he knew it was the start, and that confidence transcends to the players. It’s been pretty eventful since then so hopefully we can carry on going on in the right way. Tomorrow is a big night to continue going in the right direction.”
The Europa League final represents Emery’s only win in five meetings with Liverpool – he drew once and lost three times while in charge of Arsenal – but his Villarreal team have won four of their past five away matches in European competition and have overcome Bayern Munich and Juventus on the way to the semi-final.
“Unai has a plan for each result,” said Klopp. “Whether you are 0-0, 1-0 up, 1-0 down, more possession, less possession. Even if they are not winning, they are closed. That is really impressive and we need exactly that too, a plan for each possible result. First go for it, then deal with it. We need the atmosphere, we need the performance. We need a big game. We need to be on top of our game, I need to be on top of my game.
“It is the semi-final of the Champions League. If it was easy then something would be completely wrong. I can’t wait, even in this tactics schedule, with this kind of week – City, United, Everton – if you need a next game to be 1,000% in then, yes, bring on Villarreal in the semi final of the Champions League .”