SOME things never change for Liverpool. The Champions League remains a happy place, a temporary refuge from domestic strife.
Even at their lowest ebb, they always had Istanbul. For the Reds, the competition remains a Brexit psyche in reverse. When things are really bad, they open their arms to Europe. Hope lies beyond the English Channel.
It still does. It’s beginning to look a lot like 2005, with the Champions League being called upon to salvage an erratic English Premier League campaign and settle an identity crisis. Just who are the real Reds? Are they the team who swagger into the last 16 with a game to spare, or the traumatised bunnies caught in the glare of Nottingham Forest’s floodlights?
They are both. There are two Liverpools right now, dealing with a schizophrenic persona that doesn’t lend itself to balanced domestic football, but may be equipped to handle the manic, one-off episodes of Europe’s knockout stages.
According to historians, Robert Louis Stevenson’s idea for "Jekyll and Hyde" came to him in a dream. Jurgen Klopp’s interpretation of Jekyll and Hyde appeared at Forest, as the split personalities of a confused club failed to get a grip on their unfamiliar environment.
It all feels so new and different in the Premier League. There was an alien 4-4-2 formation at Forest, with Roberto Firmino and Mo Salah so far away from each other they needed to communicate via carrier pigeon. With banks of four, wasteful possession and a stifled press, the football was more indie shoegazing than heavy metal; self-conscious and strained.
It was a squad trying to find a new sound, a new way. It was not Liverpool.
The Reds were little better against Ajax, initially, until a lovely improvised moment from Jordan Henderson and a sublime finish from Salah near half-time changed the complexion of the game and the Reds’ performance. It was Liverpool again.
On these Champions League occasions, when Ajax open up with a positive 4-3-3 and the pressing flows back and forth, it’s as if the doors have opened to thousands of middle-aged men with long hair and Black Sabbath T-shirts. Heavy metal rules.
Muscle memory kicked in among Liverpool’s veterans. They suddenly remembered. They’re really good at this European stuff.
Henderson filled that worrying hole on Liverpool’s left flank to bury the Dutch. His polished display made the diamond shine in midfield. The skipper had able support from Andy Robertson, who picked the right game to enjoy his best performance of the season.
The curious case of Trent Alexander-Arnold continues to fascinate and exasperate in equal measure, but the ongoing obsession with the right-back’s defensive vulnerabilities has overlooked Robertson’s mini-malaise. While he has avoided glaring errors, his dominance of the left flank has been conspicuously absent too often this season.
But he was back against Ajax. So was Henderson. So was Virgil van Dijk. So was Alisson, flawless in keeping a 90th clean sheet in his 200th Liverpool appearance. So was Salah. There was no compromise against the Dutch. No coincidence either. The old timers operated on auto-pilot, in the best possible way, reminding themselves – and Klopp - of how they got here. And who got them here.
Fleeting brilliance may be enough in Champions League
The Reds have reached the last-16 for the sixth consecutive season, an astonishing achievement that is not only the envy of clubs such as Manchester United, Arsenal and Tottenham, but also Barcelona, who can only admire such sustained excellence from unwanted Thursday nights in the Europa League.
Henderson, Salah, Robertson, Van Dijk and Alisson are now playing like a greying supergroup. They still perform to packed houses, but their new material struggles to resonate with the crowd, until they pull out their greatest hits on the biggest European stages and they become unassailable, briefly, like Paul McCartney belting out "Hey Jude".
It’s fleeting, but no less glorious. And it might be enough in the Champions League.
Finishing second in the group ensures tougher fixtures in the knockout stages, but the nature of the occasion and the likely playing style of opponents may suit Klopp. It’s perhaps an oversimplification, but Ajax and Manchester City’s pressing instincts allowed Liverpool to profit on the counter in recent weeks. Nottingham Forest’s oppressive caution did not. David Moyes’ defensive approach made West Ham similarly difficult to break down.
There are just too many imponderables for Klopp in the Premier League.
Against stacked defences, will the profligate Darwin Nunez put away the solitary chance that falls his way? He scored a fine header against Ajax, but only after squandering a sitter from six yards that defied belief.
Will Liverpool’s transitional midfield provide enough cover when the press fails? It didn’t against Brighton and Arsenal.
Can Harvey Elliott’s progress be accelerated further to support Alexander-Arnold on the right side? He was terrific against Ajax, but he’s still only 19.
All of these questions apply in the Champions League, too, of course, as Klopp ponders the existential big one that dominates all managers coming to the end of a successful squad cycle. But he already has an answer, of sorts, for Europe. He still has his super group, as long as they remember the tunes.
In the knockout stages, the most distinguished company do not generally sit back like Nottingham Forest on a dreary Saturday afternoon. They press. And the Reds are just about equipped to out-press most pressers.
Salah now has 10 goals and five assists – or 15 goal contributions in 17 games. His chipped finish and sumptuous pass to Elliott are beyond the repertoire of run-of-the-mill superstars. He thrives in Europe, like the rest of Klopp’s old boys.
Salah, Henderson, Van Dijk, Robertson and Alisson can navigate European cities like a Lonely Planet guide, relying on an unrivalled, collective databank to pick out the best spots.
The journey is long and hazardous. But these weary travellers still know the way.
Salah, Henderson, Van Dijk, Robertson and Alisson can navigate European cities like a Lonely Planet guide, relying on an unrivalled, collective databank to pick out the best spots. The journey is long and hazardous. But these weary travellers still know the way.
Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 26 books.
For more football news, visit our Football page on Yahoo!