Graeme Souness played in the last Middlesbrough team to win a league game at Anfield, 41 years and two months ago. Steve Agnew’s relegated side have won once on their demoralising travels in the Premier League this season, at Sunderland, the only team inferior to themselves. Yet when Jürgen Klopp describes how Liverpool fans will approach Middlesbrough’s visit on Sunday it is with knuckles pressed between his teeth and a look of sheer panic across his face. “They will be like: ‘Oh my God, please, please.’”
Klopp claims not to have a normal life outside Melwood but he is attuned to the feelings and fears around him as Liverpool enter the season’s finale with Champions League qualification on the line. In theory, Liverpool could hardly have picked better opponents for the victory required to reach the European elite for the second time in eight years, or prepared better than with a commanding 4-0 win at West Ham United last time out. In practice, Liverpool have faltered against expectations so often this season that an away game against a top-six side might present a more straightforward assignment.
Liverpool have spent two weeks outside the top four since September but are still not over the line, having taken two points from the last nine available at Anfield, against Bournemouth (2-2), Crystal Palace (1-2) and Southampton (0-0). So, for the second time since becoming Liverpool manager, Klopp faces what amounts to a play-off for Champions League qualification in the final game of the season.
“Have a look at my career, my seasons were always on the last match,” says the man who saw the prize disappear with defeat to Sevilla in last season’s Europa League final. “I would like to change it but obviously it is part of my life. I am completely used to working until the last minute, being concentrated until the last minute. Most decisions are made in the last moment. The more you try, the bigger your desire is, the more likely you will have these kind of finals. For me, it is kind of a normal situation.
“I know how people will feel when they go the stadium [mimics a panicked supporter] but we have to be smart as well as emotional. We have to be well organised but fluid also. Only if you let it be more difficult, it is more difficult. It’s all about us and this team has showed me so often that they are really ready for situations like this. We have to show it again. It will be fine.”
Klopp says he would not have settled at the beginning of the season for a Champions League decider on the final day but has urged Liverpool to seize qualification. Asked if he would have been happy, he says: “It would be a nice answer to say yes but it’s really not the truth because at the beginning of seasons I don’t set myself limits and say: ‘This would be OK.’ I always dream of the biggest things and in one or two moments of the season I am as disappointed as a fan, but there’s still something to go for. Now this is our target and we have the opportunity.”
Champions League football would improve Liverpool’s prospects of landing their leading transfer targets this summer and provide tangible reward for a season of progress under the former Borussia Dortmund coach. The flipside, and another significant setback at the last, would not undermine the long-term project at Anfield or the faith of Liverpool’s owners in their manager, Klopp believes. “I’m a really lucky guy because I never had this pressure from owners, I never had it.
“I always had really great support from my bosses in the past but nobody should be in any doubt that I have pressure. I have pressure in my own life and pressure because I have played football since I was five years old and I want to win each game. So I’m used to this pressure. That’s the pressure we all have and that’s easy to deal with.”