Just like the old days, double looms into view for Liverpool
They were the sort of momentous weeks that became so commonplace for Liverpool during its heyday in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Back then, when the team was virtually untouchable at home and on the continent, Liverpool would be challenging for both the European Cup — as it was called then — and the English league title in those tumultuous final days of a season.
A generation on, it’s happening again.
And there’s a growing sense that these Reds, despite being without a trophy since 2012, couldn’t be better prepared for it.
A Premier League-Champions League double remains a distinct and tantalizing possibility for Liverpool after the team reached the semifinals of Europe’s top competition by completing a 6-1 aggregate victory over Porto in the last eight.
Next up is Lionel Messi’s Barcelona in a two-legged tussle coming right in the middle of Liverpool’s final four Premier League games of the season. Liverpool is currently in first place, two points ahead of Manchester City having played one game extra.
In the second week of May, Anfield will be the scene of two huge, defining matches for Liverpool: On May 7 is the second leg against Barca, followed five days later by the team’s final Premier League game against Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Emotions will run high, whatever happens in that iconic stadium. But there’s no reason why Liverpool cannot pull this off and complete the ultimate double — just as the club’s class of 1977 and 1984 did.
To start with, Klopp’s team has forgotten how to lose. Its last defeat in all competitions was 18 matches ago on Jan. 7, against Wolves in the FA Cup. A 2-1 defeat four days earlier to Man City remains Liverpool’s only league loss this season. It has only conceded more than one goal once in its last 15 games.
Mohamed Salah is back in form, scoring in three of his last four matches — including a goal-of-the-season contender in last weekend’s league win over Chelsea. As the joint-top scorer in the division with City’s Sergio Aguero on 19 goals, Salah could yet retain the Golden Boot.
There’s also the injury situation that has just about cleared up. Versatile defender Joe Gomez made a welcome return to the team as a substitute against Porto for his first appearance since Dec. 5.
Klopp was confident enough to rotate his lineup for the second leg against Porto, dropping first-choice striker Roberto Firmino and inform midfielders Jordan Henderson — the captain — and Naby Keita to the bench.
There appears to be no real threat of burnout, either, after a long season. Liverpool exited the League Cup and FA Cup early this season, fielding weakened teams in both. Klopp clearly wanted to concentrate on going deep in the two biggest competitions, and he has succeeded.
Before that big week in May, there are two league games that look easy on paper — away to third-to-last Cardiff this weekend and then at home to already relegated Huddersfield on April 26. Klopp should be able to rotate heavily for those matches without fear of dropping points. In between the Barcelona games is a trip to Newcastle, which is virtually safe from relegation.
Liverpool, of course, needs City to lose or draw at least one of its remaining five games to have a chance of winning the league. While getting eliminated from the Champions League — in the most agonizing fashion to Tottenham on Wednesday — has lessened City’s schedule, it remains to be seen what mental and physical toll that exit has taken on its players.
City’s next two games are the toughest of the five: At home to Tottenham on Saturday and away to Manchester United on Wednesday.
It is all trending in the right direction for Klopp, who is seeing a different aspect to his players this season. Around this time last year, Liverpool was powering its way to the Champions League final — where it lost to Real Madrid — in a blaze of goals but without the control of this season.
“We needed to be more mature,” Klopp said. “You cannot ask for it, you have to work for it. The boys are at a good age and they are making their own experiences, especially in this competition after what they did last season.”
Critics said this was the year that Klopp had to win his first trophy at Liverpool.
He could end up with two of them — the biggest two of the lot.
Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80