The European and South American champions go head to head in the Club World Cup final and both sets of players are desperate to secure bragging rights
They’re getting used to making history, this Liverpool team, and they’ll get another chance to do so on Saturday.
For all the Reds’ achievements across their 127-year history, there is one trophy missing. Never before has English football’s most decorated club been able to call themselves world champions.
So, when someone tells you the Club World Cup final against Flamengo is meaningless, or that Jurgen Klopp and his players won’t be particularly bothered whether they win or lose, don’t believe them.
It matters. Maybe not as much as the Premier League or the Champions League, but enough. It’ll be a motivated Reds side which takes to the field at the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha.
Having narrowly beaten Monterrey, the Concacaf champions, in Wednesday’s semi-final, after effectively forfeiting the Carabao Cup quarter-final by choosing Qatar over Aston Villa, Liverpool know that the pressure is very much on them to bring home the trophy.
They were favourites before a ball was kicked and that hasn’t changed despite an indifferent showing against Monterrey.
They needed a last-minute winner from Roberto Firmino, as well as a fine performance from goalkeeper Alisson Becker, to see off the Mexicans, but they can expect an even sterner test in the final against a Flamengo side which secured a memorable Copa Libertadores triumph only last month – and which will be backed by an impressive travelling support, the majority of whom endured a 29-hour flight to get to Doha.
“Tough game, a really tough game,” said Klopp. “We will see who deals better with the circumstances, who makes more right decisions.”
Liverpool and Flamengo have been here before, of course. They met in the competition’s former guise, the Intercontinental Cup, in Tokyo back in 1981. The Brazilians, inspired by the legendary Zico, won 3-0 in front of a crowd of more than 60,000.
For the Rio-based outfit, Brazil’s best-supported club, it remains a source of huge pride. “In ’81 we ran circles round the Englishmen,” their fans sing. “3-0 over Liverpool, it left a mark in history.”
How they would love to repeat the feat on Saturday. Having seen off Al-Hilal, the Asian champions, in their semi-final on Tuesday, Flamengo will arrive full of confidence. Tostao, the Brazil legend, has tipped them to win.
“The final for us will be faced without fear,” says coach Jorge Jesus, who took on Liverpool as Benfica boss in the quarter-finals of the Europa League back in 2010. “When we arrived, we thought we could be world champions, and now we are in the final.”
Jesus’ appointment at Flamengo back in June was met with some resistance, but he has made an overwhelmingly positive impression since. He has imposed a European style, with a high defensive line and a commitment to energetic, attacking football which has reaped rewards.
Having taken over a side third in the table, 10 points off the lead, he guided them to the title five months later. They ended the season 16 points clear of Santos, their nearest rivals, scoring 86 goals in the process.
“Risk is part of our game,” says defender Rodrigo Caio, who describes Jesus as the best coach he has worked with. “His arrival,” he adds, “was very important.”
The nature of their Copa Libertadores win in November, coming from behind to beat River Plate thanks to two goals in the final three minutes from striker Gabriel Barbosa, suggests Jesus not only has a talented squad at his disposal, but that he has the buy-in from his players too. “We never fail in the decisive moments,” he said this week.
He is able to call upon significant European experience.
Full-backs Rafinha and Filipe Luis returned to Brazil in the summer after glittering spells with Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid respectively, goalkeeper Diego Alves made more than 250 appearances in La Liga with Almeria and Valencia while veteran club captain Diego has won titles in Germany, Portugal and Spain, as well as three in his homeland and two Copa America crowns to boot.
Others, such as the free-scoring Barbosa or the midfielder Gerson, enjoyed less-heralded spells in Europe, while centre-back Pablo Mari spent time at Manchester City without ever coming close to Pep Guardiola’s first team.
Jesus has claimed that Flamengo would finish in the top six in the Premier League, and insisted that there would be no respect shown to Liverpool despite their status as European champions.
“Others may think Liverpool are better,” he said before the tournament. “But if we get to the final, we will see who is better. And I believe the best will be Flamengo.”
Caio, a Brazil international who counts Roberto Firmino among his friends, has been equally bullish.
“It’s like we’re going back in time,” he said. “Playing a final of the Mundial against Liverpool.
“It’s a unique opportunity, one that we wait for in our career. The most important thing is that we are prepared for this moment. Really prepared.
“We want to write another chapter in this beautiful story. This is our year.”
Liverpool, of course, may feel the same. The year 2019 has already been kind to the Reds.
They’ve conquered all of Europe and now, finally, they’re ready for world domination.
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