LIVERPOOL, England (AP) — Like the rest of the soccer world, Juergen Klopp had his doubts.
Given the scenario — the big first-leg deficit, the presence of Lionel Messi on the other side, injuries to important players — the Liverpool manager just wasn’t sure, deep down, that his team could come back from 3-0 down to beat Barcelona in the Champions League semifinals.
So he laid down a challenge.
“I said to the boys before the game, ‘I don’t think it’s possible, but because it’s you I think we have a chance. Because you have the mentality of giants,'” Klopp said, recalling some of his final words before kickoff on arguably the greatest night of soccer in Anfield history.
That Liverpool managed to pull off the most unlikely of 4-0 victories in the second leg is a testament not only to the quality of the team Klopp has put together but also the belief he has instilled in a group of players who don’t know when they are beaten.
They’ve shown it all season.
The late goals — however bizarrely they have come — in wins over Everton, Tottenham and, most recently, Newcastle have kept Liverpool in the Premier League title race with Manchester City to the final weekend.
The backs-to-the-wall 1-0 win over Napoli in the final group game in the Champions League, which sent the Reds through courtesy of the head-to-head tiebreaker of goals scored.
The mental fortitude to rebound from losing to Real Madrid in last season’s Champions League final in the most painful way, certainly for Mohamed Salah after his first-half shoulder injury in that match.
So maybe the comeback against Barcelona was natural for this machine that Klopp has created, albeit one that has yet to win a trophy under the German coach.
And it feels entirely justified that if Liverpool is to fall short in the Premier League — the team is one point behind City with a game to play — it still has the chance to end the season with some silverware in a competition that has become so synonymous with this storied English club, a five-time European champion.
“I am really happy having another chance to get things right,” Klopp said, referring to the 3-1 loss to Real Madrid in Kiev. “Last year, we felt we have to go back, we cannot let it stand like this. I am not sure it will happen again, so it’s so special.”
For Klopp, it is a chance to end his six-match run of losses in cup finals stretching back to the 2013 Champions League defeat to Bayern Munich, when he was coach of Borussia Dortmund. Since then, he has lost two German Cup finals with Dortmund and then three title matches with Liverpool — in the English League Cup (2016), the Europa League (2016), and last year’s Champions League.
“I know what people say about me and losing finals,” Klopp said in one of his many candid moments in a post-game news conference during which he often seemed lost for words.
There’s certainly no self-doubt among his players.
Check out, for instance, Andrew Robertson pushing Messi on the head with two hands while the Barcelona forward was on the ground one minute into the match. This a defender who, in 2017, was playing for Hull but is now one of the most highly regarded left backs in the world.
Look at Trent Alexander-Arnold, who — at the age of 20 — had the audacity to pull off a 79th-minute corner routine in which he pretended to walk away from the ball only to spin around and cross for Divock Origi to sweep in the fourth and clinching goal while Barcelona’s defenders looked the other way. It was such clear-thinking amid the furnace that was Anfield on Wednesday.
And then there’s Origi, an afterthought at Liverpool at the start of the season after spending last year on loan at Wolfsburg in Germany before being reportedly close to sealing a loan move to Huddersfield. Now here he is, scoring the late winner against Newcastle on Saturday and adding two more against Barcelona three days later.
Salah was out, recovering after a concussion. Roberto Firmino was missing, too, with a muscle strain. And Naby Keita was recently ruled out for the season. Even during the game, Robertson was taken off at halftime with a calf injury and captain Jordan Henderson played on after hurting his right knee in the first half.
Henderson was everywhere in the second half, eclipsing more-esteemed Barcelona midfield rivals Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic and helping to nullify Messi as the Argentine dropped deep.
“The belief we have in the changing room is amazing,” Henderson said. “Look at the supporters and the lads.”
Indeed, the night ended with Liverpool’s players and coaching staff standing arm-in-arm in a line in front of jubilant supporters in The Kop, singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” — the club’s anthem.
Together, they’ll head to Madrid for the final, feeling it’s their destiny to win European soccer’s biggest prize for the sixth time.
More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80