Reds deserve to be back among royalty

THERE were a few derisive chuckles when the "European Royalty" banners first popped up back in August. After all, Liverpool were suffering the indignity of having to qualify for the group phase and it's only their second Champions League appearance in eight seasons.

"Typical Scousers," came the comments from elsewhere. "Getting ahead of themselves." And it was true, Liverpool were way ahead of even their own estimates just by being in it.

Few at FSG and even on the Kop had predicted top four last season, what more a top two in the next in the great tournament that has come to define this club.

Yet the final in Kiev does feel like a proper royal occasion between two genuine heavyweights – a week after the other one involving a lowly sixth in line for the British throne.

Real Madrid, undisputed kings with a dozen wins already, against Liverpool, bidding for a sixth and outright third place on the pantheon is a mouthwatering climax in so many ways.

No one dispute's Zinedine Zidane's claim the competition is in Real's DNA but so, too, it is for the Reds who have won eight of their 10 semifinals and whose players and fans seem to attach a turbocharger whenever the anthem is played.

All that said, this week's progress to the final was a bit too frantic to be described as regal. Liverpool's second leg was more comfortable than the 7-6 aggregate scoreline suggests but not as comfortable as it should have been with a 5-2 lead from the first.

As at Anfield, two late goals gave a false impression – and those eight days ago had given Roma false hope.

What made Liverpool fans nervy was not the strength of the home side's comeback but their own side's nerves, natural enough when so tantalisingly close to such a massive prize.

The arrival of Virgil van Dijk has been the anticipated cure for defensive shakiness but mad moments have not been totally eradicated. And fear of an untimely relapse only added to the angst of a strangely fraught build-up. Nope, after all the euphoria the portents for the return were bad enough to cause concern.

It had started before the first leg finished – and from an all-too-familiar source: when Dejan Lovren allowed Edin Dzeko to score, to be precise. The harsh pen awarded against James Milner that followed was bad luck but was enough to bring Roma back to life after the last rites had been given.

Then came the news that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain would be out for the long-term; then the news about the savage attack on the Liverpool supporter provoked fears among fans travelling to Rome.

The dire draw with Stoke raised fears about a top-four finish and even Mo Salah missed a sitter. Was he distracted by his rights row with the Egyptian FA? If so, it paled to another row that had blown up.

Jurgen Klopp's trusty right-hand man Zeljko Buvac had gone. Described as "the brain" by his manager, the Bosnian was an ever-present at Klopp's side for 17 years and the official word was "personal reasons".

It smacked of a cover-up for a row serious enough to make him quit just when he was needed most.

We wondered just what effect it would have on the players, on Klopp and on the tactics. Then came the news that Buvac could be going to Arsenal!

Whatever the reason, the break-up was the last thing a band of brothers needed on the cusp of making history.

So Klopp was facing his biggest game since arriving at Liverpool – and perhaps his biggest crisis.

Thankfully for Liverpool he did not flinch, did not compromise his beliefs by parking the bus and found the right words to rally the troops. "We'll fight for our dreams," was the phrase he coined.

Like the great Bill Shankly before him, he's an inspirational figure and even if there were moments when Liverpool appeared to be missing their "brain", they should take nothing from the magnitude of Klopp's achievement.

Think back to the early encounter with Hoffenheim and how far away Kiev seemed then. Think of those humiliations at Man City and Spurs, the second half collapse in Seville, the sale of Coutinho that was supposed to mean the end of the Fab Four…

Think of the improvements he has wrought among individuals. Andrew Robertson, a £8 million (RM44m) leftback from relegated Hull not deemed ready to even start for three months; the Ox, a revelation from an Arsenal reject; the tyro midfielders Giorginio Wijnaldum, Jordan Henderson and Milner; and the Fab Three, now all-time record scorers in the competition. Just as Liverpool are.

Now only a misfiring Real side stands before them and the supreme accolade. Like Liverpool, the Spaniards weren't entirely convincing in their semi.

Indeed, Gary Lineker's old phrase about 22 men kicking a ball around and the Germans ending up winning might have to be changed to Real Madrid instead.

No one knows how they've made it to their third final in a row but we know how Liverpool have.

It's heavy metal, full-throttle football and if Ronaldo & Co were encouraged by wobbles in the Reds' rearguard, ditto Klopp & Co when looking at them.

Besides being shaky at the back, they have no discernible pattern of play, no real identity.

You fancy Liverpool have the pace and firepower to beat them. Some of the Reds' players may have been commoners but now no one disputes that the team belong among "European Royalty".

Bob's latest book, Living the Dream, is available at all major bookstores and Bob will be signing copies at the Be Bodog's Best Pundit event at Home & Away, Plaza Crystal Ville Centre, Desa Sri Hartamas tomorrow evening.