Champions League Preview - Didi Hamann

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On Liverpool’s Season

 

Didi, we spoke a few months ago before the League Cup final and you mentioned that the title would go to the wire. Given the domestic season has just closed, how do you rate it from a Liverpool POV? 

It’s been a brilliant season for Liverpool. The club won the two domestic cups and finished a point behind Manchester City again, and they couldn’t have really done much more. If you think how many points behind City they were a few months back, I think they’ve had an outstanding season - they didn’t do an awful lot wrong - and you have to accept the brilliance of Manchester City.

 

Missing out on the title by a point, again, to this Manchester City side. It’s remarkable the standard that both of these teams have set. Both teams seem to bring out the best in each other. 

I think so. Klopp has finished above 90 points three times now and has only won the league once. To illustrate how impressive that is, Fergie won the league 13 times and he never finished above 90 points. So sometimes you just have to accept that Manchester City were a little bit better and, unfortunately for Liverpool, it was just a point better, which is just the way it is. I do think they bring out the best in each other.

When you look back to the 18/19 where both won their last 12/13 games, Liverpool were unlucky to miss out on the title by a point again. They are two outstanding teams that will go down in history as two of the best the Premier League has ever seen.

As we know in sport, there can only be one winner and in this case it was Manchester City and the way that they handled the pressure towards the end of the season, you have to say that they deserved to be champions. 

 

Of course the Champions League continues to elude Manchester City, while Liverpool have a strong affinity with the competition and are one step away from adding their seventh. Despite the closeness domestically, this must give them an edge in terms of club status. 

It certainly doesn’t do Liverpool any harm. You have to acknowledge that Manchester City have been a disappointment in the Champions League for the last five or six years.

Guardiola has done ever so well in the league, winning it four times in the last five years, but the Champions League is the trophy that everyone wants to win and that was the reason he was appointed by City. In the Champions League, they’ve underperformed. When they got to the final last year, he had a big impact on the way the game went by not playing Rodri.

 

Do you think that City would swap their Premier League medals for a Champions League winners medal? 

I'm sure they would.

 

Do you think this group of LIverpool players has a stronger mentality than their rivals at Manchester City?

The difference between winning a Champions League can come down to one decision; a throw in, a corner. 

What you can say is that Liverpool handles these situations better. When they faced Villareal and were two nil down at halftime in the Champions League semi, people probably thought that it could have been over for them but they found a way to comeback and win the game. 

I think it was disappointing the way that City went out with a whimper in extra time against Real Madrid. 

Guardiola wants to be in total control of his team and I feel like sometimes his players don’t take on the same level of responsibility in the way we see that the Liverpool players do.

It’s perhaps particularly noticeable when things go wrong and his players don’t react to what’s happened due to that total control Guardiola has on the way his City side play.

In these big games, you may need players to do something special and take responsibility themselves. 

The system or manager won’t always win you a game, the game is won by players and I think this is why Liverpool are playing their third Champions League final in five years and Manchester City are not.


The Quality Of This Liverpool Squad

 

One last question about this and then we’ll talk about the Champions League. When we last spoke, you said that Wijnaldum was the missing ingredient from making this team impeccable, citing his goal threat and overall play. Do you think a player like that would have made the difference between winning the league and losing it and is this where Liverpool need to recruit in the summer? 

I think it would be harsh to say that this LIverpool team is missing anything if they potentially finish the season with three trophies. I don’t think LIverpool are missing anything. At times Keita and Thaiago have done well, of course you have Henderson and Fabinho.

I think that it would be harsh to say that one player in one position would have been the difference because it's hypothetical. The bottom line is that this is a brilliant team. You always need to freshen things up by adding players and competition within the squad is key; players need to know that they have to play well to stay in the team or someone will take their place, so we’ll probably see one or two new faces next season and I think a Wijnaldum type of player is someone that the club might be looking to sign in the summer. 


Champions League Final And Preparation

 

Describe as a player, what will be happening in the run up to a final like this. How will the mood be in the camp and what does a training schedule start to develop in the week before a Champions League final.

Obviously the tension rises. The tension rises on a daily basis. When we played, we had two weeks before the final, which is a longer time to prepare. You know the longer you have to prepare for the final the longer you tend to think about things and you don’t want to think about things too much because it can be a waste of energy.

For the last five weeks, LIverpool have had big games every three days, so they wouldn’t have had time to think about them. Unfortunately they missed out on Sunday by one point and now the tension will build. They’ll probably fly to Paris on Friday, train at the stadium and the tension will gradually increase until they arrive before kick-off.

The players will feel how high the stakes are when they experience the atmosphere in the stadium, but most of these players have done it all before, so have Real Madrid. 

 

As a player, when preparing for a final like this, did you respond better being reminded of the magnitude of the match or did you prefer to treat the build-up like it was any other game?

Sometimes, less experienced teams will play the occasion, not the game, but there is no doubt that both of these teams will not do that. These players will not need to be reminded of the magnitude of the game, but, when they arrive in Paris, they will be greeted with billboards and a Champions League fever across the whole city.

There is a danger of players getting a bit too excited and that can be a negative energy because when the match kicks off the tank could be empty. It’s at this point (when they’ve arrived) the manager will speak to the players, and will tell them to treat it like any other game they’ve played in the Champions League because that is the approach that has taken them to a final. 

 

You mentioned to me that apart from a pre-season match, in 2005 you never practised kicks as a squad. Do you know if Jurgen and his coaches practice them with this group? I ask because, we’ve seen the recent cup wins on pens, but I wonder if Jurgen dismisses the notion of practising them because he has so much faith in his players and by doing so, it's actually incredibly clever management.

It would be but I think they hired a firm a few years back. I think they have had some advice on penalties - I’m not sure to what extent and what they did - but it seems to be working. They will never win every shootout they contest and also, it's about the players executing the kicks in the right way, but obviously science and data can give you an edge.

I’m not a big believer in that, I have to say, but you have to say that the penalties that they took in the League Cup final, where every player took one, was second to none. Every penalty was unbelievable, so whatever they’ve been doing over the last couple of years, it looks like it's working. 

 

As a player, did you ever feel that fate was on your side when the finals you contested went to penalties? 

I was very superstitious as a player, but once it comes to penalty kicks it's not about superstitions, it's about execution. You have to believe in yourself, you have to have faith and you need to be committed, but if you put it in a certain place the goalkeeper will not be able to save it. Yes, I was very superstitious, but not when it came to penalties (laughs). Fortunately, more often than not it worked out for me. 

 

Would you mind sharing some of the superstitions that you had as a player? 

I would always follow the same routine. I would put the right boot on before the left. I would warm up on my own. I wouldn’t speak to anyone when I got to the dressing room unless someone asked me a question - I wouldn’t have a conversation with anyone. I would read the matchday programme.

The same routine gives players a bit of security because you think that if it works most times and you win, you use it as a safety blanket. A lot of players are like this. If the oddest superstitions help a player perform to their best, that's all that matters. 

 

Klopp has used the term ‘Mentality Monsters’ to describe the relentless winning attitude of his players. He also mentioned recently about using Liverpool’s “final experience” to help them prepare for the match. How will these experiences help them and do you think this team is ready to show Real Madrid how far they’ve come since 2018? 

The biggest teams always show what they're all about when faced with adversity. They probably shouldn’t have lost against Madrid four years ago and they came back from that and won the league and the Champions League, which shows a tremendous amount of character and strength after such a major setback.

Sometimes these types of setbacks can break weaker teams; weaker players. Klopp has ultimate faith in his players. Are they better equipped than Madrid? Probably, but physcology comes into it too. A week ago they had a chance to win everything and now they have an opportunity to win a third cup, but if they don’t win it, people may look back and think that it wasn’t a great season for LIverpool, even after winning two domestic cups.

In my opinion, even if they lose on Saturday, they've had an outstanding season anyway, but at the end of the day this is what it means to play for LIverpool - winning the biggest trophies. It's such an important game for the future of the team because it could really affect LIverpool’s confidence and togetherness if they lose. On Sunday they were ten minutes away from winning the quadruple, now they could finish with just the two domestic cups.

 

Given where LIverpool are, would the season as a whole be a disappointment if they only finish the season with a domestic cup double? 

100%. For me, regardless of what happens on Saturday, LIverpool have had an outstanding season. This season should be regarded as one of the best seasons any Liverpool team has ever played, but the perception will be that it’s only a good season because when you look at the history books, they would have only won two domestic cups - it doesn’t matter if they lost the league by one point or twenty five or whether they get beat four nil by Madrid or lose on penalties - in one or two years time nobody will talk about the result only who won.

That is where the danger lies on Saturday. From potentially winning everything, it will feel like they have won nothing this season if they do lose on Saturday. 

 

GIven the stakes and what you’ve just said, do you think there will be any nerves in the camp? 

I think if Liverpool had won the league on Sunday, I would have been very confident that they would win this match, but now, I’m not too sure. Fabinho will only return to training today, Thiago may not be available. His absence wouldn’t be a huge loss, but LIverpool would need to bring somebody in. Phsycologically, I think the result from Sunday probably plays into Madrid’s favour. 


The Match

 

When we spoke last time, you said “the Champions League final defeat by Real taught this LIverpool squad what they needed to do to finally become Champions League winners” Do you expect Liverpool to extract some revenge and show them how far they've come since that final? 

Well, the more I think about the game, the less confident I am because Madrid have beaten City, Chelsea and PSG and they looked dead and buried in each of those ties - nobody gave them a chance - but they still found a way to come back.

If they were to beat Liverpool, I don’t think anyone could say that they didn’t deserve to win it because they would have played and beaten the four best teams in the competition. Madrid are a hugely experienced team and they have a lot of faith in each other. Ancelotti has huge confidence in his team and they have a lot of experience, especially in the middle of the park with Kroos, Modric and Casemiro.

For LIverpool to get a positive result, they will have to try and make sure they can control the midfield, which won’t be easy against them and then they also have good attacking players in Vinicius, Rodrygo and Benzema. At the back, their defending is a bit shaky, but then again they still found a way to go through against City, Chelsea and PSG, which is a worrying sign for LIverpool. 

I do think that with the way LIverpool’s domestic season finished, with City missing a penalty and drawing against West Ham and then being two nil down against Villa last week and finding a way to win that game, things haven’t gone to plan for LIverpool.

Liverpool could have been and probably should have been champions and that disappointment is where the danger lies in my opinion. Liverpool shouldn’t underestimate Madrid, I think other teams were guilty of that and were punished for it. 

 

You mentioned the psychological edge Madrid may have. Do you think they may also have a physical edge after being in a position where they could rest players after winning the title? 

It can go either way. Usually, it is better for players to remain in rhythm and if you’re successful and winning games, there’s nothing better than playing every three or four days because you don’t have time to think about the next game and your confidence is sky high - you go from strength to strength. 

I wouldn’t say that it is an advantage for Madrid because when you’re playing for nothing for three weeks, it is very hard to replicate the intensity of big matches and finals. If anything, I would probably say that it will work in Liverpool’s favour because they had tough games, the players had a rhythm, which Real didn’t have. 

 

Madrid have been involved in plenty of chaos this season in the Champions League - they can’t seem to control games - how do you think Liverpool will approach the game tactically to counter their threats? 

Whenever Madrid played an open game, it suited them. I wouldn’t want Liverpool to start playing Real Madrid’s game - attack against attack and don’t worry too much about defending because it will play into Madrid’s hands. Madrid have played some outstanding teams so far and beaten them. I think control will be key. 

The Madrid defence is not the best. It is their Achilles heel, but LIverpool have to be careful because Madrid have some good attacking players and speed in the wide areas.

The key to winning the game will be in midfield. I hope that Fabinho can play, Thiago will play if he is fit, but I think they need to control the middle of the park because if they can do that, Madrid will not be able to get the ball into their dangerous players - Vinicius, Rodrygo and Benzema - I know Benzema has scored a few goals out of nothing in the Champions League this season, but if Liverpool can control the middle of the park, they have a chance. 

 

What type of match are you expecting on Saturday night? 

I think it will be a controlled match. I don’t think we will see any end-to-end stuff in the first half an hour. If Madrid goes in at halftime at nil nil, Ancelotti will be delighted because everyone thinks that Liverpool are the superior side.

If you offered him a nil nil at halftime, he would take it because Madrid have been so strong in the second half of their games in the Champions League. I don’t think Klopp would take it. I don’t think we will see any chaos in the first half. 

 

You mentioned the importance of winning the midfield battle, can you elaborate on that?

This is where games are won and lost. If you can control the midfield, usually you control the game. If you want to bring your forward players into the game, you need to have time on the ball. Liverpool need to be at their best there and this is why it would be huge if Fabinho could play because he is the guy who gives the forward players the freedom because he always sits and is very disciplined. He is very clever at intercepting balls. 

For Madrid, Casemiro does the same job and they also have Modric. The midfield battle is the key to winning the match. It is absolutely vital. Until we know the midfield three that Liverpool will play it is very hard to make predictions on the outcome of the game. If there is no Fabinho and Thiago it will be a depleted LIverpool midfield and it will be harder for them. 


On Thiago

 

How impressed have you been by him? 

He’s had some very good games. I said last year I’m not too sure where he would fit into the team, but he’s played very well and I’ll be the first person to acknowledge that, but you have to realise that the games where he has played well have been against teams LIverpool have dominated.

In the matches against Manchester United and the Villareal first leg, Liverpool had 70-80% of the ball. He likes having the ball at his feet, that is his game. He has missed some important games. He missed the League Cup final. He missed last week's game and now he’s probably going to miss the Champions League final. You want your best players playing when it matters and if you look at the most important games this year he hasn’t been there.

Against Villareal away from home, when Liverpool needed a player to calm the game down, he wasn’t there. I know people have been raving about him, but any midfielder can play well when you're dominating possession to the extent that Liverpool did in the matches I mentioned. Yes he's played well, but is he the best midfielder at the club? People have said he’s been the best midfielder at the club this season, but there are many more players at LIverpool that have been a lot more involved than Thiago this season.

He can be the missing piece in the puzzle but to do that he needs to play 50 games a season and he simply doesn’t. He’s done well in parts, but I don’t think he’s the player people talk about. He’s very easy on the eye - I like watching him, don’t get me wrong - but at the end of the day you have to see what he has done for the team, how much has he contributed? Has he been available for the big games? Has he performed in the big games?

The simple fact is that he hasn‘t played in two or three of the most important games because he was injured and I would go back to the Villareal second leg and ask people to watch it and think where was he when the team needed him the most? They didn’t need him when they beat Manchester United four nil, they needed him in the big games and this is why my end summary isn’t as positive as some.

 

Benzema against Virgil. What a match-up that will be - with Benzema in this type of form, do you think that whoever wins this duel will have a major impact on the overall result of the match?

If Liverpool can keep Benzema quiet and he doesn’t score then LIverpool will have a very good chance and I’d expect them to win the game.

He has been very good in the Champions League this season and has scored lots of goals out of nothing. Don’t forget that in a lot of the matches they’ve played, Real Madrid have been under the cosh without much possession, which a striker doesn’t like, and he’s still had the energy, the commitment and the power to finish the limited chances he’s had when he’s been given them.

That being said, he’s coming up against the best defender in the world and I would favour van Dijk in this duel. I don’t think Benzema has played an opponent as good as him, so I wouldn’t say that it is advantage Liverpool but I do think it will be very hard for Benzema on Saturday. 

Speaking from a players perspective, van Dijk will be relishing this challenge. As a player, you want to play against the best and he is one of the best if not the best centre forward in the world this season, so I think Virgil will be well up for it. 

 

Benzema recently said that Liverpool could be a little bit vulnerable because of the high line that they play in defence, which could create space for their wide players to hurt Liverpool, particularly Vinicius. Is that something you would be worried about?

Liverpool only play that high line because they have very quick players. In terms of pace, Konate and van Dijk probably have the edge on Benzema and I don’t think Vinicius is that much quicker than Alexander-Aronold. 

I'm not worried about the high line. If you look at Liverpool’s defensive record over the last few months, they’ve been superb and have hardly conceded any goals. It's how Liverpool play and have done all season -  they shouldn’t change their approach for this game because this is their style. If there is a high ball over the top of the Liverpool defence, I’m confident the defence can handle it. 

 

One  of the big calls that Klopp will have to make is choosing between Diaz and Jota - how impressive have these guys been this season and who would you have in the team sheet on Saturday? 

It’s great to have Diaz as an option. He has been brilliant since joining the club in January. I’ve seen players that need three to six months to adapt and he has come in and functioned from day one.

I don’t think the team is as efficient when Mane plays through the middle, which is what happens when Diaz plays, I’d rather see Mane on the wing and this is why I think Klopp will start with Mane, Jota and Salah on Saturday. 

Diaz has shown what a wonderful sub he can be. He doesn't need much time to make a difference and this is why I think he will probably start on the bench. 

 

A word on Diaz and his impact…

He’s a physical player; very powerful, very direct. The game in England is different and I think the South Americans can sometimes adapt to the league quicker. If you’ve watched the Copa America or qualification matches in South America, it is pretty rough at times, which is similar to the Premier League, which is why some South Americans settle into the rhythm of the English game quicker than some Euriopeans do. 

If you look at how quickly he has settled into the LIverpool team it is astonishing. I think he’s been incredible and has proved a lot of people wrong, myself included. 


Salah’s Revenge

 

What are your thoughts on Salah openly saying that he is out for “revenge” against Madrid on Saturday?

I didn’t like the comments. I don’t like the word “revenge” for a start when it comes to football. After he made those comments, he picked up an injury a couple of days later and it was touch and go as to whether he could play the match.

I’d rather he did his talking after the final, hopefully after winning it. I don’t think it helps anyone talking like this before the match. Did Ramos do it on purpose? Only he knows, but I don’t think he did. No doubt it was a turning point in the game because he had to come off, but these things can happen in football and I didn’t like the comment at all, no. 

 

Does that go back to your superstitions as a former player? 

100%. When you throw a comment like this into the world, I think you need to be worried about karma. I’m not saying Salah was disrespectful, but he said something that he didn’t need to say and sometimes these comments catch up with you.

If I was his team mate, that would be something I would be thinking about leading up to the game. I think it is better to leave these things alone and do your talking on the pitch. If you want to make a comment afterwards, then fine. 

 

Is there any danger that he may be distracted by his motive or let the occasion get to him? Could he put his own personal needs over that of the team? 

Yeah, potentially. Usually he is a very mild mannered person and player. He is calm, but if he says these things three or four weeks before the game, you can only imagine that leading up to the game he’ll be fired up.

He needs to keep his composure. He is a very experienced player who has played in some big games, but there is always a danger that he could be too focussed on his revenge, but I’m sure Klopp is aware of that and will probably have a word with him before KO. 

 

Redemption, that's how Carra described this match for Salah. Do you expect him to write the headlines every Liverpool supporter would want to read with his performance in the game? 

He can absolutely be the difference maker but his shooting boots have deserted him over the last few months. He is capable of doing it, of course.  It’s not like he hasn’t won the Champions League - they won it a couple of years back.

If Liverpool hadn't won it then it would make the game even bigger, but you don’t really need anything to make this bigger. This is a match between probably the two most iconic clubs in the world competing for the biggest prize in club football. 

Salah and this team have already won it, he has his revenge in that sense and Liverpool have nothing to prove. If they won it again it would be a tremendous achievement but they have to get away from thinking that because it's Real Madrid they need to win it even more. Both teams are different, it’s a new game.

I think there's a danger when players speak like this because they think about the opposition too much when they should be focussing on themselves and what they can do. 

 

How do you think this match will go? 

It will be important to see who is playing for Liverpool. Madrid will go into this game with a lot of confidence after beating Manchester City, Chelsea and PSG. They always find a way of winning games this season. At times they’ve looked old, they’ve looked laboured and they’ve looked like they were on the verge of being knocked out, but they still found a way.

They have some exceptional players off the bench - Camavinga has made a huge difference everytime he has come on. I have a feeling that Real Madrid will beat Liverpool again. 

 

Given Ancelotti’s history with LIverpool, do you think that could have an effect on the outcome. 

Well, we know about the matches he has had against them as a player and manager. I don’t really think he was at Everton long enough for that to be considered, but as an Evertonian, I’m sure he will want to win it even more but I wouldn’t read too much into it. 


Liverpool Legacy

 

When we spoke last time, you described this team as one of the best in English football history. Would a further Champions League victory cement their place as the best? 

I absolutely believe it would. 100% If you look at the 70’s and 80’s where the club won it four times, when they made their mark on European football, if this group can win it again, the third time in four years, it would be huge and there is no reason why they couldn’t do it again the following season. 

We will have to see what Liverpool do in the summer; who leaves and who arrives. This is an exceptional team. Only the best teams have won it twice in three years and for me, this team is one of the best ever and another win would further their standing in the history of English football. 


Klopp And Salah

 

How happy were you to see that Jurgen signed a new contract until 2026 recently? 

Great. If he feels that he has another three to fours years left in him at Liverpool because it's a demanding and exhausting job, don’t forget, then it's brilliant news. It has been a success story, despite the odd blip, but every year the team is showing progress.

The recruitment has improved every year and he's done it with little money or net spend, If you were to compare that with some of the other teams in the league. As long as he keeps his bond with the players - I don’t think his bond with the city or the fans will ever go - then he is the perfect man for the job. 

 

You mentioned the resources that he has had available to him in comparison to other clubs like City. Klopp and Guardiola have been competing for the biggest prizes over the last four seasons, pushing each other to improve. Pound for pound, given the resources he’s had at his disposal, does Jurgen have the edge? 

I don’t even think you can make the comparison between who is better. Guardiola took over a title winning side. If you look at Klopp’s first squad, I think Origi is the only player left and they weren’t a very good team.

He transformed the club into a winning machine and a brilliant team in five or six years, a team that has won the Premier League, appeared in three Champions League finals, won one Champions League and then you add the domestic cups. He’s done it with a lot less money than Guardiola, who also inherited world class players when he joined City.

He had David Silva, Kompany, Aguero waiting for him - Klopp didn’t have anything like that level of talent when he went into Liverpool. I don’t think there is any comparison between the two in terms of which achievement or tenure has been more impressive. 

 

City have picked up one of the hottest forwards in world football with Haaland - do you think that will worry Klopp? 

Na (laughs). City bought Grealish for £100 million last year and he just gets on with it. Klopp and his team, with the players that they bring in are exceptional - Diaz has done more in six months than Grealish has done in twelve. I don’t think it will worry him at all. Liverpool will back him financially if he wants a certain player. 

 

Just back on Klopp, how has he managed to keep motivating his players and himself to go again? 

I think it is a lot easier when you’re winning because the pressure is different from when you lose. As long as he wants to carry on and remain motivated to win more trophies, I think he will want to go down in history as one of the most successful managers in the club's history. 

 

Did you think that when Klopp came to the Premier League he would have such a huge impact at Liverpool? 

Yeah. I knew how he worked. It was the same at Mainz, it was the same at Dortmund. I had absolutely no doubts at all. 

 

Do you expect Salah to sign a new contract with the club? 

I think he’ll sign. I think he’ll stay. He wants to challenge for the Champions League every year, there is no better place to do it than at Liverpool at the moment. Madrid? I don’t think that is an option. 


Departures And The Future

How would you assess the impact of outgoing sporting director Michael Edwards at Liverpool? 

If we talk about Klopp’s success, then we have to mention him because he has been instrumental in the recruitment at LIverpool and has done a phenomenal job. Take the example of Diaz, people had heard of him but he wasn’t a superstar and he came into the league and made an impact straight away.

I know that Liverpool spent a lot of money on Alisson Becker and van Dijk, but we’ve seen clubs spend similar amounts of money on players like them who haven’t been able to perform at the top level.

It’s not just the ability of these players, but they all have the right character that is suited to the club and suited to the city of Liverpool, which is really important. He will be a big loss but I’m sure that Julian Ward will do an equally as good job when he takes over. 

 

A quick word on Origi who will join AC Milan this summer? 

He’ll be remembered as a man for the big occasion. You know it's not easy for a centre forward to play the role as a super sub, but he cherished the role.

I think he realised that there were four or five players in the squad that were ahead of him in terms of ability, but you still have to keep yourself fit and be in the right frame of mind when you’re needed, which requires huge mental strength. He knew that he might not play for three weeks but in the fourth week he’ll be thrown on with ten minutes to go and the team needing a goal and he would be ready to deliver.

A lot of times he did do that - the goals against Everton, Barcelona, the Champions League final - he has played his part in Liverpool’s recent history. Whenever he played he contributed so it's no surprise that he is a folk hero at Anfield and a fans favourite. I’m sure all the Liverpool faithful hold him in the highest regards and will be happy to welcome him back in the future. 

 

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