When it comes to draws for European competition, there is always an undercurrent of narrative, and as Alexander Frei plucked the names out of the hat in Friday afternoon's UEFA Europa League quarter-final draw, a meeting between Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool seemed inevitable.
A ripple of knowing laughter echoed around UEFA's chosen venue in Nyon—two hours from Basel's St. Jakob-Park, which will play host to the Europa League final in May—as Frei landed on the final two sides, making the most hotly anticipated clash in this season's tournament a reality.
Having left Borussia Dortmund at the end of the 2014/15 campaign, Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp has been spared little time before an emotional return to the Westfalenstadion.
Five months into his tenure on Merseyside, Klopp is beginning to see signs of considerable progress, but this clash with his former club—riding high under his successor, Thomas Tuchel—will provide the 48-year-old with his biggest challenge yet.
Klopp will be desperate to reach this season's Europa League final, but first he must mastermind the downfall of his beloved Dortmund; this could prove a tall order.
Joining Dortmund from Mainz in 2008, after a long and fruitful spell in charge of the club he spent his entire senior playing career with, he arrived with a burgeoning reputation as one of Europe's finest young managers.
Though the move to appoint Klopp came as something of a gamble for Dortmund, this quickly paid off, as the Stuttgart-born manager transformed the club from mid-table hopefuls to one of the Bundesliga's top sides.
Over seven seasons, Klopp led Dortmund to two Bundesliga titles, two DFL-Supercups, one DFB-Pokal win and the UEFA Champions League final in 2013—a tense clash with Bundesliga title rivals Bayern Munich that saw Dortmund lose out to a late Arjen Robben strike.
Beyond this tangible success, Klopp's crowning achievement was the fostering of a winning mentality at the club, driven by a powerful, high-intensity attacking system, which captured the imaginations of Dortmund's famous Yellow Wall.
Klopp's move to Liverpool saw the concept of gegenpressing—or counterpressing—emerge in Merseyside's collective vocabulary, with this infectious brand of hard-working defensive play off the ball central to Dortmund's success, hounding the opposition into mistakes and punishing them with fast-paced attacks.
Much of Klopp's success in this came due to his sensitive approach to player development, plucking unknown talent from obscurity—and Dortmund's youth system—and moulding a side to match his ambition.
This saw the likes of Robert Lewandowski and Mario Gotze grow to become key players, boosting their reputation and earning high-profile moves to Bayern, while Neven Subotic, Sven Bender, Ilkay Gundogan, Marco Reus, Mats Hummels, Lukasz Piszczek and Marcel Schmelzer owe their lofty status in Dortmund to the work of their former manager.
Gundogan's reaction on hearing the draw served as the perfect testimony to Klopp's standing at Dortmund, with the midfielder taking to Twitter to express his delight at the prospect of a reunion:
Ilkay Gündogan @IlkayGuendogan
He comes back! 😉 #Kloppo #UELDraw #BVBLIV @BVB3/18/2016, 12:18:55 PM
Unfortunately for Klopp, his final season in charge of Dortmund proved to be a disappointment as, marred with injuries, they struggled to maintain consistency throughout the campaign, finishing seventh in the Bundesliga and prompting a weary Klopp to announce his resignation.
With Dortmund keen to reap the benefits of a similar risk in appointing Klopp's replacement, Tuchel's move from Mainz last summer has hinted at similar progress at the Westfalenstadion, and the 42-year-old provides Klopp with a worthy adversary.
Building from the ashes of Klopp's reign, Tuchel has followed suit in his first months as Dortmund manager and established a dominant, attacking style of play that has brought them back alongside Bayern at the top of the Bundesliga, while standing as favourites to win the Europa League.
He's a very ambitious trainer. If you see his training, it's very ambitious. He's very clear and very down to earth. He changed the philosophy of playing.
We are now very dominant and every player puts their strengths into the service of the team but there's enough space for each player to show their individual qualities.
He's made perfectly for this job. He's done a brilliant job.
While performances were disparate and tactics confused in the final months of Klopp's tenure, Tuchel has restored consistency, with more focus on possession, and as Ricken suggests, this has seen a number of key individuals thrive.
Most notably, the majestic Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has shone in his role as Dortmund's key centre-forward, with his remarkable strike away to Spurs on Thursday night helping his season's goal tally to 35 from just 40 appearances in all competitions—and with 11 assists to his name, the Gabonese is far from a pure poacher.
Aubameyang's interplay with the likes of Reus, Shinji Kagawa and Henrikh Mkhitaryan—a player on Liverpool's radar prior to his move from Shakhtar Donetsk in 2013, as noted by the BBC—has given Dortmund an overwhelming edge in attack.
With Gundogan back to top form after his long-term injury, and Tuchel settling on a regular back four of Schmelzer, Hummels, Sokratis and Piszczek, marshalled by inspired summer signing Roman Burki, Dortmund have found the perfect platform to build their devastating forward forays.
In 26 Bundesliga games, Dortmund have scored 61 goals, with only Bayern netting more (64), while they also boast the league's second-best defensive record, conceding just 25—under a goal per game.
Tuchel has moulded Dortmund into a formidable European force, and as Klopp told reporters including the Liverpool Echo's James Pearce after Thursday night's 1-1 draw with Manchester United, they are "the strongest team in the tournament."
As narrative dictates, this saw Klopp pitted against not only the Europa League's strongest outfit, but also his former side—but while Tuchel has fostered a bullish mentality at Dortmund, Klopp may still be confident.
"If we go there, we will try to win. I'm pretty sure there are no easy games now, we have to be prepared," he continued to tell reporters at Old Trafford, and it is in this cautious, measured optimism that Klopp could seek an advantage in the quarter-finals.
With Mauricio Pochettino effectively throwing Spurs' first-leg clash with Dortmund by naming a heavily rotated side—with one eye on the Premier League—and suffering a 3-0 defeat, Klopp must avoid this approach.
However, while Pochettino is focussed on success on the domestic stage, Klopp's best opportunity at success in 2015/16 stands as triumph in the Europa League.
As Liverpool's all-out dominance over United proved, Klopp is not one to take Europe's second tier lightly.
Over two legs against United, the likes of Mamadou Sakho, Emre Can, Dejan Lovren, Adam Lallana, Roberto Firmino and Philippe Coutinho all shone, with the defiant defensive display of Sakho, Can and Lovren paired with the match-winning brilliance of Coutinho to seal the defining result on Thursday night.
This should provide supporters with optimism, as Liverpool are beginning to resemble a side matching Klopp's vision, as he told reporters including the Press Association (h/t This is Anfield) on Friday afternoon.
"This is a real development and that is more important than confidence because the players have quality and we always have an offensive lineup so it is important we feel better in this style of play," he said.
The improvement in each of these players—Sakho, Can, Lovren, Lallana, Firmino and Coutinho, among others—has come from Klopp's mentality on Merseyside, and victories over United, Manchester City and Chelsea this season have showcased their ability to perform against bigger sides.
When Klopp leads his side out against Dortmund, it will no doubt be an emotional moment for the 48-year-old.
But this will be channeled into his push for victory, as, while Dortmund represent Klopp's toughest challenge yet as Liverpool manager, the German's fearlessness, and his experience of life at the Westfalenstadion, will see the Reds go all out.
It was far from the most desirable tie for Liverpool as they seek Europa League glory, but Klopp will be confident in his ability to mastermind a triumph over his former side.
Statistics via Transfermarkt.co.uk.
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!