How Karius’ Kiev pain inspired Liverpool’s march to glory
Sometimes it’s just not your night.
Liverpool had travelled to Kiev with hope in their heart and a spring in their step.
They left with wounded pride, reddened eyes and silver medals. Battered, bruised and beaten.
The tears had flowed inside the NSC Olympiyskiy Stadium. From Loris Karius, cast cruelly as the villain of the piece. From Mohamed Salah, whose busted shoulder had cost the Reds as much as his goalkeeper’s errors. From Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, whose absence through injury had been so keenly felt.
Andy Robertson, as positive a character as you could wish for, would speak of “devastation” in the dressing room. For Virgil van Dijk, walking past the Champions League trophy knowing he could not touch it was “the worst feeling you can get.”
Back on Merseyside, a little after 4am, Jurgen Klopp gathered his players and staff in the Melwood media room. It would prove to be one of the most significant addresses of his managerial career.
He told his players he was proud of them, and that they should take pride in what they had achieved. He told them that he felt and understood their pain, and that they should not shy away from those feelings. “Use them,” he ordered. “Make them work for you.”
Crucially, though, he repeated that Liverpool would come again, that Kiev would not be the end of the road, merely a stop-off point.
“Our story will continue,” Klopp insisted. “We will be back again, only stronger next time.”
For Karius, Klopp’s words will have come as little consolation.
The goalkeeper knew he would be blamed for Liverpool’s loss. There is no hiding place on the biggest stage, and his errors had been beamed to the world. He had cost his team, not once but twice.
“I know that I messed everything up,” Karius would later tweet. “I am infinitely sorry.”
Liverpool did their best to protect him. Klopp would offer words of encouragement at the final whistle, while team-mates would insist that the responsibility for defeat was to be shared, just as any glory would be.
Five days later Karius, at Liverpool’s insistence and following a phonecall to Klopp from German legend Franz Beckenbauer, underwent a head scan at a hospital in Boston, where it was concluded that he had sustained a concussion during the final. He had, according to Klopp, displayed “26 of 30 markers” during tests.
“We don’t use it as an excuse, we use it as an explanation,” he would add.
The ‘concussion theory’, predictably, would be greeted with derision across the football world. Even more so when Karius, in his first game post-Kiev, made another error to cost his side a goal in a friendly at Tranmere.
It was decided then that Liverpool’s initial plan to support, encourage and rehabilitate was not going to work. The wounds were still visible, the effects plain to see not just in Karius, but in supporters and, crucially, team-mates too. Rightly or wrongly, that night in Kiev would colour the rest of his Reds career.
He would be gone soon after, signing a two-year loan deal with Besiktas while Liverpool spent £65 million ($82m) to bring Alisson Becker, Brazil’s No.1, to Merseyside from Roma.
Alisson had been on their radar for five years, having been flagged up by former Reds ‘keeper Alexander Doni while playing for Internacional. Prior to Kiev, sporting director Michael Edwards had spent the best part of 12 months negotiating with the player’s representatives, convincing him that Liverpool, and not Real Madrid, Napoli or Chelsea, all of whom were keen to sign him, was the best place for him.
Liverpool had baulked at Roma’s initial asking price of close to £100m ($126m) and briefly considered other, much cheaper, alternatives. Jack Butland and Nick Pope were options, as was Lazio’s Thomas Strakosha.
None were in Alisson’s league though. The Brazilian was judged not only as the best goalkeeper in the business, but as an ideal fit personality-wise too. He would calm the fans and, like Van Dijk and the newly-signed Fabinho, provide security through the spine of the side. “A game-changer,” as one club source puts it. “And the only one out there at the time.”
So as Karius headed for Turkey, hoping to rebuild a reputation destroyed in the Ukraine, Liverpool were already looking to the future. Ready to go again, this time with a new man between the sticks.
Kiev may not have prompted those plans necessarily, but it certainly accelerated them.
We know what has happened since, of course.
In the space of two years, Liverpool have become European and world champions. The Premier League crown will follow in the next few weeks, and should be achieved in record-breaking fashion too.
From the ruins of Kiev, a new beast has emerged; driven, relentless, winning. “F*cking mentality giants,” to use the words of their manager. How much of that can be attributed to 2018, the sharpness of that pain and the determination to put things right?
Liverpool had felt a sense of injustice in Kiev. They had seen Salah, their star man, wrestled out of the final by Sergio Ramos, and had fallen victim to not only two of the worst goalkeeping errors you are likely to see in such a big game, but also one of the great Champions League goals of all time, scored by Gareth Bale.
And so they returned that summer not downhearted, but driven, focused, ready to go again, only better.
“It was the kick-start for the development of this team, 100 per cent,” said Klopp, who would watch his side set a new club record of 97 points the following season, losing just once in 38 Premier League games.
Somehow Liverpool still fell short in the title race, but glory would arrive three weeks later though, the Reds beating Tottenham in Madrid to clinch their sixth European Cup.
And who was it who stood firm that night, his second-half saves ensuring his side got across the line?
Who was it who walked out of the Wanda Metropolitano clutching a bottle of beer in one hand and club football’s most famous trophy in the other?
Alisson Becker, that is who. The man signed to make sure there would be no more Kievs, no more tears, no more Melwood autopsies.