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The sign at the top of the stairs inside Borussia Dortmund’s Westfalenstadion made it perfectly clear where former coach Jurgen Klopp now belongs. On a placard with the Europa League logo on it, the words "Jurgen Klopp–Dressing Room" with an arrow pointing to the away team’s locker room was in full sight of the Liverpool coach. He would have enjoyed the joke.
Indeed, there have been lots of smiles on his first return to Dortmund as an opposition coach since leaving the club that he led to two Bundesliga titles, one league and Cup double, and a Champions League final in his seven years there. He spent 20 minutes catching up with old friends before fulfilling his press commitments and also opened up Liverpool’s full training session to the media on the night before the game (normally UEFA states the first 15 minutes must be open).
Klopp wins most PR battles, but Thursday will be a different test for a Liverpool side that is still coming to terms with the new manager. The normally unflappable coach did seem surprised to learn that German TV station Sport1 will be having six hours of pre-match build-up and then running a "KloppCam" during the game focused only on the returning hero.
The good news for Klopp is that some of Liverpool’s best performances this season–beating Manchester City 4-1 away, or Chelsea 3-1 away, or City again 3-0 at home, or when a half-strength side beat Southampton 6-1 away in the League Cup–have come against the stronger teams.
“That’s how, in my opinion–and if maybe you look back over big histories–development starts,” Klopp told Liverpool’s official website. “You need to be a real competitor against teams that are in a stronger or better position or whatever, more confidence for example. That’s how it starts–let your own confidence grow and it helps you on the way to being a winning team in the end.”
Liverpool needs to win the Europa League to make the Champions League next season, but that target was always going to be a long-shot in Klopp’s debut season, especially one that started without him in charge of preseason. That’s why regardless of Thursday’s result, the mood around Anfield is optimistic; there have been signs that his 4-3-3 pressing game will get the results eventually, even if Daniel Sturridge or Christian Benteke seem suited to the central striker role (when Danny Ings is fit again it could be another story).
Klopp has overseen a vast improvement in the form of several players, among them Emre Can, Roberto Firmino, Adam Lallana and Dejan Lovren.
And yet that still might not be enough to stop Dortmund, who could be Liverpool’s toughest opponent of the season. The first-leg host is second in the Bundesliga, and only five points behind a dominant Bayern Munich side, whose coach, Pep Guardiola, cannot quite believe Dortmund is still in contention. I asked five Bundesliga experts where this Dortmund side would finish in the Premier League this season, and four of them said first. Even Klopp agreed that Dortmund is in the top five teams in the world right now (he also promised to celebrate if Liverpool scored, just as he did when he moved to Dortmund after 18 years as a player then coach at Mainz).
Klopp may have been coach when Dortmund signed Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, but both have enjoyed their best season in yellow-and-black under his successor, Thomas Tuchel. That’s not such a knock on Klopp. The fact that Dortmund’s tactical development has made the club tougher to break down than before might be. It has more options now, it’s more direct and can change tactics mid-match.
As 11 Freunde magazine put it: “Dortmund can always switch up a gear… It combines individual class with tactical flexibility better than any other team in Europe.”
Tuchel has replaced Klopp before, at Mainz. Tuchel’s impact, like now, was immediate. In his first season, he led Mainz to fifth, its highest position ever. This season at Dortmund, the title may be beyond Tuchel, but he is on target to beat Klopp’s points tally in 2011 and 2012, when Dortmund won the double. After 28 games back then, Dortmund had 65 (2011) and 63 (2012) points; now it has 67 points. It is also in the German Cup semifinal and favorite to win the Europa League. If it wins two trophies and achieves a record point total, would that trump the success of the Klopp era? And for how long will Dortmund be able to keep hold of Tuchel?
Whatever the result, both these teams can expect an exciting ride with these two German coaches at the helm. Such has been Tuchel’s impact with Dortmund that a run at the late Champions League stages must be a target for next season. And if the Liverpool owners want to really plan ahead, they should know who to pencil in as Klopp’s eventual successor.