Not for the first time in his career, Jurgen Klopp made the lonely walk to collect his runners-up medal and walk past the trophy he had dreamt of lifting less than two hours earlier.
He had just seen his Liverpool side defeated by Real Madrid and, for the sixth time in a row, he was relegated to the role of gracious loser in a major final.
The sense of ‘what if?’ from the Champions League final defeat is unavoidable; the loss of Mo Salah midway through the first half meant that the every post-match discussion, every bit of analysis, would come with that caveat of wondering what might have happened if the Egyptian forward had not been forced off injured.
Even then, the Reds will feel that they left something behind on that pitch in Kiev, that they contributed to their own downfall. Much of that blame, unfortunately, has to fall on goalkeeper Loris Karius (more on him later) but still, Liverpool must feel as though they had so much more to offer than they showed against Real.
They will feel like their world has caved in for the next few days – in that sense, they are lucky that they have an eternal optimist like Klopp as their manager. He, above anyone else at that club, knows how this feels. Six times now he has to collect the silver medal, and six times he has stared down the abyss of defeat and refused to give up hope. His Liverpool gold will come, and he knows it.
Klopp has bought into the club in a way that no outside manager has done since Rafa Benitez. His mantra of turning “doubters into believers” runs through everything he does. He refuses to be negative in what he says and does and he won’t tolerate it from dissenters either.
That the season should end on a negative note is disappointing, not least because such an encouraging campaign doesn’t deserve to be remembered that way. Liverpool have made strides this season, have laid the foundations for something special, and that should be the overriding feeling from this campaign. Heroes have been forged, not just in the likes Mo Salah, Virgil van Dijk and Roberto Firmino but also the previously such as James Milner, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Andy Robertson and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
They’ve broken countless records in the Champions League, they have one of the most prolific forward lines in Europe and, with the exception of Manchester City obviously. they can legitimately argue that they have had a better season than every other Premier League club this year. In every almost every quantifiable metric, that’s progress.
Each campaign under Klopp has been better than the one that preceded it, and overachieved to the point where this Liverpool side were 90 flawless minutes away from becoming the European champions. Make no mistake about it, this side and Klopp’s plan are ahead of schedule.
And so, to Karius. That police are investigating death threats aimed at the goalkeeper speaks volumes, and is a damning indictment against those that haven’t the brain capacity to realise that footballers are real people too.
On a human level, Karius deserves nothing but our sympathy. By all means, criticise the mistakes he made but a 24-year-old has just had the worst night of his career, possibly his life to date, in full view of hundreds of millions of spectators and he may never fully recover from it. In an age where focus has been on mental health like never before, it’s important to remember that. There is never, ever a need to cross the line from criticism to flat-out abuse.
From a footballing perspective, though, Klopp must show some ruthlessness when it comes to his goalkeepers. Karius had steadily improved over the course of the season – and anyone who says that they knew for certain that he would be the weak link in Kiev is being disingenuous (hindsight is wonderful, after all) – but having a match like that on the biggest stage tends to haunt a player for the rest of his career.
The manager may well decide that Karius can yet prove everyone wrong – but it could now be time to accept that a change is in order.
Despite the sobering defeat on Saturday, there should be plenty of cause for optimism among the Liverpool fan base. The club appears to be far more stable than at any point in the last decade, in terms of the boardroom and the playing staff. Having lost Philippe Coutinho in January, one gets the sense that the only players that will Anfield this summer are ones that Klopp wants to leave (with the exception of Emre Can), with the emphasis on sorting the final few problem positions and building squad depth.
The impending arrival of Naby Keita (and potential acquisition of French international Nabil Fekir) should swell the feeling of optimism for next season. Klopp doesn’t go into the market for just any player – they have to be the right one for his system. That he refused to consider alternatives for Van Dijk and Keita should confirm this, and it’s why the majority of his signings have been successes.
Talk of challenging Man City next season is still fanciful, but each year feels like Klopp is building towards something special at Anfield, and everyone associated with Liverpool will be excited to for that next block next year. In an era when managerial sackings are all too common, long-term thinking at the likes of Liverpool and Tottenham is to be commended.
Losing the final hurts right now, but there are brighter days ahead for Liverpool and Klopp.