In the opening 30 minutes of the 2018 Champions League Final, Liverpool were electrifying.
Jurgen Klopp’s high-intensity charges had nine shots in the first half-hour, with Gigi Wijnaldum testing Keylor Navas after only three minutes, and both Virgil van Dijk and Roberto Firmino coming close to breaking the seal with well-taken headers.
In that same time period, Real Madrid could only muster two shots. It looked as if the Spanish giants would fail to win the Champions League for a third consecutive season. Five-time European champions Liverpool were back! And they were more thrilling and rambunctious than ever!
But then Mohamed Salah clashed with Sergio Ramos. The Reds’ star player was forced to leave the field and their plan completely fell apart. After such a bright start, they failed to have another attempt on goal for 25 minutes, by which time Los Blancos had scored their first goal and revived their inimitable flow.
Forty minutes later, it was over. Jurgen Klopp climbed onto the podium at a major cup final as a runner-up for the third time with Liverpool and sixth time in his career.
He’s strangely become accustomed to it.
His only victory in a knockout tournament final came in his first attempt in 2012, when his fantastic Borussia Dortmund side pulled off a thrilling 5-2 victory over Bayern Munich to win the DFB-Pokal, the German Cup.
Since that night, Klopp has repeatedly fallen at the final hurdle. The following season, he took Dortmund to the Champions League final at Wembley Stadium, where he faced familiar foes Bayern Munich. A thrilling and technically brilliant all-German final looked like it would go to extra time before Arjen Robben’s heartbreaking 89th-minute winner.
The season after that, Klopp’s Dortmund were able to take Bayern to extra time in the DFB-Pokal final, but conceded two unanswered goals to lose.
Klopp reached the German Cup final once again in 2015, but his final game in charge at BVB proved to be a 3-1 defeat to Wolfsburg.
Just four months into his time at Liverpool, Klopp had guided the Reds to the League Cup final. However, they lost to Manchester City when Lucas Leiva, Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana all missed their penalties in the shootout.
Three months later, Klopp found himself in his first-ever Europa League final, up against tournament specialists Sevilla. Liverpool started brightly but fell apart in the second half.
“I am responsible for this performance,” Klopp said in his post-match press conference. “I promise everybody we will use it and come back stronger."
The Reds certainly are stronger now than they were at St Jakob-Park that evening, but Klopp stands on the precipice of his seventh consecutive major final loss.
On paper, there is no way that Liverpool should lose the 2019 Champions League final. They have a better European pedigree than Tottenham, a superior squad, a better head-to-head record (they won both their Premier League encounters 2-1 this season), and this team has a huge point to prove after losing all three finals they have entered under Klopp.
If a team earns 97 points in the Premier League and reaches a Champions League final, but somehow fails to win any silverware, questions must surely be asked of their coach.
Could it be that Klopp is cursed?
“I don’t think that way at all,” Klopp recently said in response to questions of supernatural influences on his luck. “I’m healthy, my family is healthy, I do the job I love so that makes me already a very fortunate person. In football if you want to win, you have to accept that there are occasions when you might lose.”
Soccer is a highly superstitious sport and there have been several instances where curses are thought to have played a role in a team’s misfortune. The Bela Guttman curse, for example, is believed by many to have kept Portuguese giants Benfica away from European glory since the 1960s.
But back in the world of rational thinking, Klopp’s terrible record in finals may be attributed to any combination of three factors: bad luck, poor preparation or a psychological weakness.
Bad luck is certainly possible, but for a stretch of six consecutive finals? (How often does the roulette table land on the same color six time in a row?). It may be more likely that Klopp’s sides aren’t set up for the rigors of a pressure-laden final.
The German’s teams are all about high energy, high pressing and high emotion. They come out swinging and sometimes struggle to maintain control after early bursts of intensity. We saw this exact pattern in the 2016 Europa League final and 2018 Champions League final.
By contrast, a manager like Jose Mourinho may not set up his teams to play exciting soccer, but he knows how to close it out on the big occasions. “Finals are not to play, finals are to win,” he said when discussing the prospect of Klopp losing his third Champions League Final.
There may also be a psychological weakness at play, particularly in the case of Liverpool. The Merseyside club were a European powerhouse in the late 1970s and 1980s, but haven’t won the English top flight in 30 years. In the Premier League era, they have come agonizingly close to glory and watched it slip away (quite literally, in one case) at the final hurdle.
Liverpool are the bookmakers’ favorites to secure their sixth European Cup title at the weekend, but a Tottenham side who barely made it out of the group stage have shown their mettle by eliminating tournament favorites Manchester City and tournament darlings Ajax on the way to the summit. They are a potential banana skin who are not to be taken lightly.
Klopp has been quick to serve up excuses when results haven’t gone his way, blaming everything from the wind to overly dry grass. But he will have no excuses if he falters in a final once again.
In this sport, silverware is the most common metric to judge success. If Klopp is to be considered among the elite, he needs to finally get his hands on Ol’ Big Ears in Madrid on Saturday.
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