Klopp at Liverpool, Season 3: The Egyptian King, rollercoaster ride to Kyiv and £75m game-changer

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This is the third part in our series charting Jurgen Klopp’s nine seasons at Liverpool from his 2015 arrival to his upcoming departure from Anfield. In case you’ve missed them, you can check out parts one and two.

Liverpool’s summer 2017 transfer window bore similarities to the previous year, as in came a shrewd purchase from a recently relegated side (Andy Robertson/Hull after Gini Wijnaldum/Newcastle) and a game-changing African winger.

Sadio Mane proved to be a roaring success in his first campaign at Anfield, and the Reds would’ve been hoping for something similar when the club spent £36.9m to acquire Mo Salah from AS Roma. He wasn’t the only ex-Chelsea attacker coming to Merseyside, either, as Dominic Solanke was also brought in.

From Rickie Lambert, Mario Balotelli and Fabio Borini just three years previously, Liverpool now had a frightening front three of Salah, Bobby Firmino and Mane. Each of those were on target on the opening day, a frustrating 3-3 draw at Watford, but already the signs of a devastating attacking unit were visible.

By the time the Reds thrashed Arsenal 4-0 in late August, it was clear that Klopp had the forward line of his dreams, but a 5-0 humiliation by Manchester City a fortnight later provided a sobering reality check, and began a sequence of only one win in eight matches across all competitions.

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Liverpool’s consistently inconsistent nature was summed up in a five-day period in October during which they pummeled Maribor 7-0 away in the Champions League but were trounced 4-1 by Tottenham, a day when Dejan Lovren had such a disasterclass that he was substituted after half an hour.

After that hammering at Wembley, the Reds didn’t lose again for another three months, with that devastating front three having well and truly clicked. In the final few weeks of 2017, there was another 7-0 victory in Europe (v Spartak Moscow), a 5-1 demolition of Brighton, a 4-0 win at Bournemouth and a 5-0 Boxing Day romp over Swansea.

However, defensive problems were still glaring, as evidenced by collapses in 3-3 draws away to Sevilla and Arsenal. In order to remedy that long-standing issue, Klopp went down a familiar transfer route, and he went big. It was time for yet another raid on Southampton, this time in the form of a £75m deal for Virgil van Dijk.

The Dutch centre-back enjoyed a dream debut, scoring a late winner in an FA Cup win over Everton at the start of 2018, although his big-money arrival was swiftly followed by an even bigger-money exit as Liverpool cashed in on Philippe Coutinho, who was sold to Barcelona for a whopping £142m.

Virgil van Dijk celebrates as he scores Liverpool’s second goal during the Emirates FA Cup Third Round match between Liverpool and Everton at Anfield on January 5, 2018. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

It was a telltale sign of how game-changing Van Dijk’s arrival would be that, in Liverpool’s first 23 Premier League games of the season before his top-flight debut for the club, they shipped 28 goals. In the subsequent 15 matches, they conceded just 10 times.

The Reds showed how far they’d already progressed under Klopp when they welcomed Man City to Anfield in January, ripping apart the hitherto unbeaten champions-elect in a 4-3 thriller which flattered Pep Guardiola’s side, who scored the final two goals of a pulasting clash.

There was a brief stutter at the end of the month but LFC were back in the groove by the time their Champions League campaign resumed in February. Porto away looked an intimidating round of 16 clash, but the orange-clad Reds made a mockery of that billing by destroying the home side 5-0 in Portugal. The second leg on Merseyside was, to put it mildly, a formality.

Salah’s finest individual performance of the season saw him score four times in a 5-0 demolition of Watford in mid-March, and Liverpool as a whole were irresistible as they took Man City apart in the Champions League quarter-finals at Anfield, racing into a 3-0 lead inside half an hour. A 2-1 victory at the Etihad Stadium secured a passage to the last four.

Liverpool players celebrate after their team’s first goal during the UEFA Champions League Quarter Final Second Leg match between Manchester City and Liverpool at Etihad Stadium on April 10, 2018. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images,)

With so much attention trained on the European adventure, Klopp’s team took their eye off the ball domestically, as dropped points against West Brom, Stoke and Chelsea gave the latter an edge in the chase for fourth.

Thankfully, the Blues blew it at home to Huddersfield in the final week of the season, and LFC hammered Brighton 4-0 on the final day to cement a repeat of the previous campaign’s finishing position with ease.

After 80 minutes of the Champions League semi-final first leg, Liverpool led Roma 5-0 and were as good as in the final, only for two late goals to give the Giallorossi a lifeline for the return in Italy.

The Reds were 2-1 up in the first half and appeared to be cruising once more, but ended up 4-2 behind and clinging on to avoid being taken into extra time. It was harder than it should’ve been, but Klopp’s side made it to a second European final in three years, this time in the biggest tournament of the lot.

Just as in 2016, a team from Spain stood in the way of LFC in a continental decider. Real Madrid were going for a third successive Champions League triumph, but Liverpool had no reason to fear anyone with the swashbuckling trio of Salah, Firmino and Mane scoring 91 goals between them throughout the season.

General view inside the stadium as Sadio Mane shoots and scores during the UEFA Champions League Final between Real Madrid and Liverpool at NSC Olimpiyskiy Stadium on May 26, 2018 in Kyiv, Ukraine. (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

The Reds travelled to Kyiv in confidence of winning a sixth European Cup, but Lady Luck deserted them on the night. The Egyptian King was subjected to a brutal hatchet job by Sergio Ramos – who somehow got away without punishment – and had to be substituted in tears after half an hour.

It remained goalless at half-time, but then came the worst 45 minutes of Loris Karius’ life. It still boggles the mind how he conceded the opener to Karim Benzema when trying to roll the ball out, and once he fumbled a Gareth Bale strike from distance into his own net to make it 3-1 in the 83rd minute, the game was up.

It was a night when nothing went right for Liverpool, but although the manner of the defeat was incredibly hard to take, their mere presence in the Champions League final reflected how far they’d progressed under Klopp in less than three years.

From 10th in England at the time of his arrival to 90 minutes short of becoming champions of Europe, the improvement under the German was staggering. The wait for silverware went on, but considering the trajectory of this team, it surely wouldn’t be much longer before they finally got over the line…

READ MORE: The evolution of Liverpool’s starting XI under Jurgen Klopp

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