The most remarkable part of Liverpool’s rebuild under Jurgen Klopp, culminating in this year’s Champions League final, is how quickly it has happened. Of Brendan Rodgers’ exciting team that nearly won the Premier League in 2014, only Jordan Henderson survives as part of Klopp’s XI.
Luis Suarez and Philippe Coutinho were sold for big money and Daniel Agger and Steven Gerrard have retired. Daniel Sturridge and Jon Flanagan are on loan elsewhere while Simon Mignolet is on the bench. Martin Skrtel and Glen Johnson are also elsewhere.
Meanwhile, the 27-year-old Henderson has graduated from Gerrard’s junior midfield partner to his successor as captain.
When Klopp breezed through the door in 2015 promising gegenpressing and heavy metal football, Henderson looked vulnerable and didn’t play in the following year’s Europa League final.
Now he’s not only the heartbeat of Liverpool’s midfield but also an important voice of the club. Henderson is keen to ensure his manager gets the credit for the Anfield revolution at a sensitive time when his long-time confidante Zeljko Buvac is no longer in the dug-out.
‘I don’t compare this team to 2014, they are totally different. But obviously the manager has played a big part. He’s come and created something really special within the dressing room,’ says Henderson.
‘We feel privileged to have him as manager. We learn so much from him and expect to be getting to finals like this. I know you (the media) might not but we do and I think we can prove a lot of people wrong. If we perform to our best, we will give anyone a game, including Madrid.’
It normally takes teams time to gel. But here are Liverpool in the biggest European final in the first season for Mo Salah, Virgil van Dijk and flying full backs Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson.
Sadio Mane, Loris Karius and Gino Wijnaldum are still in their second year and the team have been without three injured midfield player: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain; Adam Lallana and Emre Can.
‘We have a lot of young players but it’s how close we are and what the players are like as people that’s important, says Henderson.
‘That makes a massive difference when you are on the pitch and going through tough times. When you concede and can bounce back, that puts us in great stead going forward and we have dealt with difficult moments. We’ll need to use that against Madrid.’
For now, Cristiano Ronaldo will have to wait.
Liverpool have no time to reflect on their thrilling 7-6 aggregate win over Roma in the semi-final, given they face Chelsea today at Stamford Bridge where defeat would put a top-four finish and re-entry to the Champions League in jeopardy.
Henderson knows it. ‘It was a great occasion to qualify for the final but we have to push it aside to focus on Chelsea. That’s football. If you want to be the best and win things, you need that mentality. Once you’ve won a game or achieved something, move on to the next thing,’ he says.
‘It’s not difficult for us to be brave on the pitch. We all follow the manager’s plan and know that way we have a good chance of winning things. We’ve grown as a team in the last couple of years. We just feel we need to win something to get us going.
‘I feel it’s coming. You can see that when we play football and how we play.’
Keeping that hunger was a bedrock of Liverpool’s worldwide success in the Seventies and Eighties and for Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United later.
Henderson now stands now stands 90 minutes from joining Emlyn Hughes, Phil Thompson, Graeme Souness and Gerrard as a Liverpool captain who has lifted the European Cup.
He has seen his team-mates ignore appeals to change their adventurous style. On the opening day they conceded three at Watford but stuck to their guns and became the first team to beat Manchester City in the Premier League, 4-3.
They threw away a 3-0 lead against Sevilla but carried on attacking in Europe and hit five in Porto, five in two wins against Man City and put seven past Roma.
Their front three, Salah, Roberto Firmino and Mane, have scored an astonishing 31 goals in Europe between them. Of Klopp’s likely starting XI in Kiev, only Salah (Roma) and James Milner (Man City) have arrived from elite clubs.
The others were signed hungry for success from more modest places. Karius (Mainz), Firmino (Hoffenheim), Wijnaldum (Newcastle) and Henderson from Sunderland.
The link with Southampton is well known with Dejan Lovren, Mane, Lallana, Van Dijk and Nathaniel Clyne all coming from St Mary’s. Robertson, a cult figure on the Kop, was relegated with Hull City last season. He is now competing against Marcelo of Real Madrid and Brazil.
‘I’ve watched him for years. He’s different class, probably the best (left-back) in the world right now,’ enthuses Robertson, set to become the first Scot to play in a Champions League final since 1997.
‘To play against him will be great. I’m not sure I can do the skills he’s got but I can put a channel ball in!’
Henderson was a 14-year-old when he watched the 2005 Miracle of Istanbul on television.
‘An amazing game. An amazing end,’ he smiles. ‘We take inspiration from past teams and players, what they’ve done for Liverpool.
‘We’re trying to create our own history. I hope this is the start of good things with many more finals to come.’
By JOE BERNSTEIN