Jurgen Klopp was greeted with plenty of tributes and warm reunions on his return to Borussia Dortmund, but the Liverpool coach's greatest pleasure was to come out with a strong performance at the stadium he once called home. Against the favorites for the Europa League title and, regardless of competing in the continent’s secondary competition, one of the leading teams in Europe, Liverpool emerged with ample credit and a 1-1 draw to take back to Anfield next week.
Despite his emotional connection to a club he led for seven years through one of the richest periods in their history, Klopp had insisted he would have no hesitation in celebrating in front of his once adoring fans. To his delight, Klopp had a chance to prove himself true to his word. With 36 minutes on the clock, he exploded with ecstasy on the sidelines when Divock Origi gave Liverpool a shock lead to temporary silence the mass ranks in yellow and black at the Westfalenstadion.
Against opponents that have been rejuvenated since Thomas Tuchel replaced him last summer, there was reason to fear that Klopp could be given a painful demonstration of just how far his team still has to go to meet his standards. While, to be sure, there is much work to be done, on this night, Klopp had his transitional team packing the midfield and working tirelessly and intelligently both to plug gaps and apply pressure.
There was plenty of frustration for Klopp, too. His side’s lead was squandered by a short corner early in the second half which saw Dortmund defender Mats Hummels comfortably rise above Adam Lallana to head home. Still, Liverpool had the better chances to have won the game, and were only denied a second goal by an outstanding save from Roman Weidenfeller.
There is still much work to be done in the second leg at Anfield in seven days’ time, but Liverpool have done their chances plenty of good. Although they had ousted Manchester United in another highly charged occasion in the previous round, Liverpool knew they were stepping up a level here.
Dortmund had only failed to win in three home games in all competitions this season, and one of those was in a meaningless Europa League group match, while another was against the mighty Bayern Munich. Under Tuchel, Dortmund have developed a possession approach to match the “heavy metal” football of Klopp. And that style has seen them push Bayern in the Bundesliga title race as well as brush Porto and Tottenham aside in the Europa League knockout rounds.
That quality was evident in the early stages, notably when one of the post-Klopp newcomers Julian Weigl picked out Marcel Schmelzer behind down the left of the box and his cross was met by Henrikh Mkhitaryan. A goal looked to be on the cards, but Mamadou Sakho threw himself at the ball to make a crucial block. It was an intervention that was matched by his center-back colleague Dejan Lovren later in the first half, testament to the fact that Liverpool’s players were willing to put their bodies on the line, in a competition which now provides Liverpool’s last realistic path to the Champions League next season.
Klopp’s tactics were also vindicated. Putting the energy and discipline of James Milner in a midfield three, and shifting Philippe Coutinho out wide, helped Liverpool to limit the influence of the in-from Mkhitaryan and Marco Reus.
Klopp’s other big decision saw him opt for Origi instead of Daniel Sturridge up front. It, too, paid handsome dividends, with the still raw Belgian striker putting in a tireless performance at the head of his team and offering vital pace in behind. And it was that speed, with the help of a slight deflection off Lukasz Piszczek, that gave Liverpool what could prove a vital away goal.
It could have gotten even better for Liverpool right on the stroke of halftime. Again Origi found himself through on goal, this time after Liverpool’s pressing led to a rapid counter attack, but this time he was denied by the frame of Weidenfeller.
Had it not been for the veteran goalkeeper, who has seen his place taken in the Bundesliga this season, Liverpool could well have been leaving with a victory. After Hummels cancelled out their lead, Liverpool applied huge pressure to the Dortmund goal.
In brilliant fashion, Weidenfeller was up to the challenge, first pulling off an incredible save from Coutinho low at his near post and then in quick succession denying Nathaniel Clyne and Coutinho once more. As has often been the case since Klopp took charge, some of the intensity drifted out of Liverpool’s game as the second half wore on, but Dortmund couldn’t take advantage. It all sets up the tie perfectly for what is sure to be an electric night at Anfield.