Steady Amid Another Anfield Storm, Liverpool Advances in Champions League

LIVERPOOL, England — Liverpool, Jürgen Klopp had said, needed Anfield. It needed to find fuel in the floodlit memories that swirl around this stadium. It needed its fans to turn the visit of Napoli into another of those nights that burnishes this place’s legend: another St.-Étienne, another Borussia Dortmund and, most of all, another Olympiakos.

The parallel, after all, was clear, obvious. The situation was exactly as it had been when the Greek champions traveled here in 2004: Liverpool had to beat Napoli by 1-0, or otherwise by two goals or more, to qualify, to avoid the indignity of elimination at the Champions League’s group stage.

For Liverpool, the past is comfort, and it is inspiration. Anfield feels a compulsion to live up to its own lore on occasions like this, each successive generation determined to meet the standards set by its predecessors, to create its own version of the stories that have been passed down to them and into myth.

On these nights, Anfield regards itself as an active participant in the drama: deafening, crackling, pulsing with energy, possessed of a power to alter the result. Those games — St.-Étienne and Dortmund and Olympiakos — are remembered as much for the atmosphere they generated as the action they produced. They are recalled almost as much as Anfield’s triumphs as Liverpool’s.

Staring at elimination, Klopp wanted to harness that. He wanted a night in which Anfield is as Anfield sees itself. He wanted the noise and the fervor and the frenzy. He wanted, most of all, the chaos. “If something special is possible, it’s here,” he had said the day before the game.

Ever since he arrived in England, Klopp has made a point of spending a little time during games coaching his crowd. The sight of him turning away from the field to encourage the fans at his back to raise the volume has become a frequent — and occasionally a slightly grating — feature of match days at Anfield.

In part, that is because of his own background: His previous job, of course, was at Dortmund, where the noise washes down the Yellow Wall, arguably the most intimidating grandstand in European soccer, and the whole place seems to shake. One of the key factors in Klopp’s taking the Liverpool role was his sons’ experience of Anfield as tourists, their testimony that he would find here what he had there. He discovered, soon after arriving, that it did not always meet his expectations, and he decided to do something about it.

But it is also, partly, because for some time Anfield’s reputation has been one of the most potent weapons at Liverpool’s disposal. This is a team that has needed its fans to make up for its shortcomings, to level the playing field, to fire its players and to burn its opponents. It has needed the noise and the fervor and the frenzy.

That it has been involved in so many dramatic, last-minute scrapes, victories snatched from the jaws of defeat, is because it is only in chaos — when the natural order of things has broken down — that Liverpool, against more illustrious, more accomplished opponents, has been able to thrive.

To some extent, Klopp got what he wanted on Tuesday. Anfield delivered the noise he had demanded. Liverpool won, 1-0, and took its place in the knockout rounds of the Champions League, once again ensuring that the Premier League has a full complement of four teams in the last 16 of Europe’s most exclusive club competition.

But this was not a night in Anfield’s grand old tradition. This was not the visit of Dortmund in 2016, when Liverpool needed three goals in half an hour to survive. It was not Olympiakos in 2005, when Steven Gerrard had to intervene in the dying minutes to send Liverpool through and mayhem swept through the Kop. This was not a victory for Anfield, and chaos. It was a victory for Liverpool, and control.

By any measure, Klopp’s team has made a remarkable start to the season. Its European form has been patchy — “not good enough,” as Virgil van Dijk, the defender, said on Monday — but it has been almost flawless in the Premier League.

It has not been beaten in 16 games. It has dropped points only away to Chelsea and Arsenal, and at home to Manchester City. Only four teams in English history — the history that starts in 1888, not the history that starts in 1992 — have had better records at the same stage. It sits top of the Premier League, ahead of City by a point.

And yet it has done so with as little fanfare as a team as widely supported, as keenly scrutinized and as intensely followed as Liverpool can manage. City helped, of course: Until its defeat at Chelsea on Saturday, its record had been even more impressive.

But Liverpool’s performances have contributed, too. This has not been the swashbuckling team that made it to the Champions League final last year, scoring bunches of goals in breathtaking surges. It has not asphyxiated its opponents with Klopp’s signature high press. It has not blown teams away. It is only a slight exaggeration to say it has managed to stay unbeaten for 16 games without actually appearing to play especially well.

Only, though, when judged against what it was, rather than what it is. This Liverpool is not that Liverpool. It is not swarming opponents because it is not trying to swarm opponents. It is not sweeping teams away in 10-minute spells because it is designed to pick them apart over 90. And it is not scoring great barrages of goals because it no longer needs to.

Klopp, for all that his public image is of a coach with one distinct, nonnegotiable style, has retuned his team, and his thinking. Liverpool is now a team built as much for obduracy as explosiveness, one that boasts the most expensive defender in the world in van Dijk and, in Alisson Becker, the second-most expensive goalkeeper.

It is a team that has discovered the virtue of patience, and of precision, characteristics that Klopp believes stand it in better stead of thriving over an entire season, rather than in patches. It is a team that seeks to control, not one that intends to turn all around it to chaos.

It is a team that needed to beat Napoli either by a single goal to none, or by at least two goals. Last year, there would have been no choice: Liverpool would have had to welcome the mayhem and hope to come out on top. This time around, it is different: more flexible, more mature. A single goal, a brilliant one from Mohamed Salah, was all it could muster, but it was all it needed.

That is not to say Klopp’s team is sterile, or dull, or lacking in ambition. Nor is it to say this was an evening of eerie calm. Liverpool still had chances — Sadio Mané, in particular, might have scored three or four — and still, in those tense final minutes, allowed two. Only the poor finishing of José Callejón, and a wonderful save from Alisson, kept Liverpool on course. Still, that is why you spend $84 million on a goalkeeper.

By Anfield’s standards, it was almost a letdown. There was no stirring finale. There was only a little nail-biting, nerve-shredding drama. There was a team doing what it had to do; a team, for the most part, in control; a team that wanted all the noise and fervor and frenzy, of course, a team that benefited from it, a team that would not have it any other way. But a team that needed it? Not any more.

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