Already in this season’s Champions League, Jurgen Klopp has taken Liverpool past several almost-forgotten milestones.
When the Reds crushed Maribor 7-0 in October, it was the first away group stage victory for the Anfield club since November 2009, at Hungarian side Debrecen. When progression to this season’s last 16 was assured, it meant a first appearance in the knock-outs since defeat to Chelsea at the quarter-final stage in April 2009. And now there’s another landmark to check off; a first knock-out stage win since one round before that defeat by the blues, when Liverpool humiliated Real Madrid at Anfield.
If there was a time in the modern era when the Reds ranked among the most feared clubs to play in the entire continent, that stage under Rafael Benitez was it - finalists twice, semi-finalists a further time and within a whisker of repeating the trick at Stamford Bridge.
Prior to that Chelsea tie, Madrid were dispatched in ruthless, emphatic style. A 1-0 first-leg win at the Santiago Bernabeu had prompted now-infamous headlines of “This is Anfield—so what?” in the Spanish media. A 4-0 pummeling in the second-leg perhaps answered their question.
The Reds were giants among European greats, rubbing shoulders with the very finest. And now that’s precisely where Klopp must lead his team again, starting with a victory over Porto across the two legs. Returning to among Europe’s most feared will require overcoming a more prominent name, but Liverpool have, finally, earned the right to at least attempt it.
“Yes, the last 16 in the Champions League is quite a message already," the manager admitted in his pre-game press conference. "But now we have to show that we are not only part of the competition, we are quite ambitious. That is how it is and we have to take it seriously."
How ambitious? Liverpool aren’t the best all-round team in the competition, but fans will not have forgotten 2005. They weren’t the best then, either, but that didn't halt the momentum or mounting belief that the incredible, the unthinkable could happen. The point isn’t that Klopp and his team should necessarily be aiming to lift the trophy this term, but rather that they must be focused on once more regularly being in the conversation.
Any journey to the top has to include steps at the midway point, and that’s perhaps where Liverpool are right now. Basecamp has been surpassed by qualifying, and the tricky early path of the group stage, where nerves might be most frayed and the longer-term objections lost even before they truly begin, has been navigated. Now it’s about consistency, belief and relentlessness, tackling the always-slippery route with many difficult obstacles ahead, even before the peak begins to come into view.
Perhaps fittingly, Liverpool’s tie against Porto—aside from for fans of the clubs involved of course—will not be the big highlight. Two heavyweights of both the footballing and financial world will be colliding at the same time: Paris Saint-Germain, and the aforementioned Real Madrid. Since that Anfield hammering, while Liverpool have yet to win another knock-out game, the Spanish side have gone on to win the competition itself no less than three times. Even taking into account recent form, few would pick Real Madrid as the side they desperately want to face. That’s the level Liverpool were once at, and is the peak the manager is attempting to scale once more.
It is 3,623 days since Liverpool last beat a team in the knock-out stage of the Champions League. That is the first bridge Klopp and his team must cross as they attempt to scale the mountain itself, to regain a regular place among Europe’s most feared.