Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp looked to have a touch of fear in his eyes back in December when his men were drawn against RB Leipzig.
The Champions League round of 16 clash, which you can hear live on talkSPORT, promised to be a test of the Reds’ mettle and circumstances suggest it’s only got harder in the intervening days.
Klopp’s Merseysiders are struggling big time and the 3-1 loss to Leicester saw the Reds’ Premier League title defence hit a new low.
They have just two wins in their last 10 Premier League games, a situation unthinkable 12 months ago and even with their awful injury scenarios is a huge drop off.
And now Liverpool must face Leipzig coach Julian Nagelsmann, a man clearly loved by Klopp, while the feeling is mutual between the two, who once shared an agent.
Three years ago when they last met, Nagelsmann was coach of Hoffenheim, attempting to qualify for the Champions League group stage.
“I’m really happy for my friend and agent [Marc Kosicke] because I’m the old horse in the stable and there’s a young horse already!” Klopp said in a press conference in August 2017.
“He’s a big, big coaching talent. We don’t know each other very well but I’ve followed his way because I like good football.
“He’s not the only one but he’s a good example of a lot of really good young managers in Germany.”
Turns out Klopp knew what he was talking about and Nagelsmann’s rise now sees him coveted by major clubs with Tottenham most recently linked with his services.
An article in the The Athletic claims he has admirers in north London. The reality is that he’s likely to have them in every major boardroom across Europe.
He’s also been courted by Real Madrid and previously nicknamed ‘Mini-Mourinho’ by former Germany international Tim Wiese.
Becoming the Bundesliga’s youngest ever coach at 28 years old is quite the feat but Nagelsmann never once rested on his laurels. He’s a perfectionist.
After the final whistle of Hoffenheim’s 6-3 aggregate defeat to Liverpool back in 2017, Klopp couldn’t find his compatriot.
Wishing to offer him a fond farewell, he was nowhere to be seen.
Klopp, in discussion with Nagelsmann recalled what happened next: “What I can remember is that after the game, after the second leg, I went to look for Julian because I wanted to say goodbye or something…
“I can remember that too,” his opponent chimed in.
“And I opened the door to a little room, where I didn’t even know that there was anything behind it,” Klopp continued. “And he was sitting there with his assistants at a laptop. You could see it in his face, that he was thinking: ‘Well what happened here?’”
“Yeah, that’s exactly what happened,” Nagelsmann admitted. “And you closed my laptop and said to stop it: it’s over anyways. Let’s rather go have a beer. I took a few minutes to deal with that.”
Klopp added: “You can’t win after the game is over. That’s my experience.”
The advice was heeded and in 2019 he skipped over to RB Leipzig and has broken more records since.
Against Mourinho’s Tottenham last March he became the youngest coach to win a Champions League knockout tie, aged 32, but he and his charges eventually lost at the semi-final stage to former mentor Thomas Tuchel and his Paris Saint-German side.
The now-Chelsea boss is someone Nagelsmann looks up to but so is Klopp.
“He leads with great emotion,” Nagelsmann told Champions Journal last year. “He manages time and again to inspire the players emotionally so that they all push themselves to their limits. The human side of Jurgen is very impressive when you see how the players perform for him on the pitch and how they run for him.”
For now, though, Klopp is focusing on beating the young upstart and has admitted he faces a touch challenge against his compatriot.
He told Liverpool’s official website : “We played against Julian Nagelsmann, the coach, when he was at Hoffenheim, which was a tough one.
“Now he has a better team, a really exciting team. Lost Timo Werner, still in the top three of the Bundesliga, that says really everything about them.
“He is definitely someone I have a lot of respect for.
“In comparison, Thomas [Tuchel] is, I don’t know the age, but Hansi [Flick] I think is a little bit older than me. [Nagelsmann] will be in world football for the next 20 or 30 years. He is now in his early 30s, that says everything.
“He coached a Bundesliga team in Germany when he was 28, which is a really exceptional story.
“I like what he is doing, I really like what he is doing. I have a lot of respect for his work. Being at that age, now he is in the age I was when I started coaching but he is doing it already for five or six years, which is really exceptional. Still young.
“I’m afraid to say but probably will still get better and better over the years, like we all got, but is already really highest quality. It will be a tough one.”
It certainly will be tough, and could be a huge sliding doors moment for both managers at a pivotal point in their careers.
You can hear RB Leipzig vs Liverpool on Tuesday night at 8pm live on talkSPORT