Thiago Alcantara will step out at Anfield in front of a crowd for the first time as a Liverpool player when they face Crystal Palace on the final day of the season this weekend. But his first taste of the famous old stadium’s atmosphere came many years earlier.
“Wow,” he tells Sky Sports as he recalls the 1998 UEFA Cup tie between Celta Vigo, his World Cup-winning father’s team, and a Liverpool side containing Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher. Celta knocked the hosts out that night. A seven-year-old Thiago, wide-eyed in the stands, savoured the spectacle.
“I have been addicted to football since I was young. English football, Italian football, Spanish football. But that was my one and only experience as a fan in a stadium,” adds Thiago.
“It’s one of the biggest memories I have because it was also a very successful night for my dad’s team. Now, I want to have the same memorable experience with an amazing crowd in that amazing stadium – but as a player.”
That time is drawing closer.
Twenty-three years on from his first visit, Thiago is relishing the prospect of playing in front of 10,000 fans at Anfield on Sunday as Liverpool aim to finish a difficult season on a high. You can bet every one of those fans will be feeling the same way about watching him.
Few signings have prompted more excitement than that of Thiago, a serial winner and world-class creator who at times appears to operate on a level entirely of his own in midfield. But his first year in England has not been straightforward.
He arrived from Bayern Munich having barely had a break following their Champions League final triumph over Paris Saint-Germain in August. A Covid diagnosis in September was then followed by an ill-timed knee injury in October. When he finally returned in January, it was to a side ravaged by injuries and struggling for form.
Fortunately for Liverpool, Thiago has never been one for letting his head drop. “It was tough but I think I’ve had worse moments than that in my life,” he says. “With calm, with work and with resilience, you can overcome all situations.”
That’s exactly what Thiago and Liverpool have done.
Jurgen Klopp described finishing in the top four as “almost impossible” in March but they haven’t lost a Premier League game since and Wednesday’s win at Burnley sent them above Leicester and put their fate in their hands ahead of the final day.
“Looking back at this season, we had a lot of walls in front of us that we had to pull down,” says Thiago. “It was like that. We had many important players injured and we had to create a new team and a new style – very similar to what we had, but with different players.
“In the end, we created a group that is fighting for a place in the Champions League, so that’s nice.”
The circumstances were especially challenging for Thiago given he was already having to adapt to a new country and a new league.
The 30-year-old, who rose to prominence at Barcelona before following Pep Guardiola to Bayern, admits it took him time.
“At the beginning, I was surprised by the rhythm of the game and the long balls,” he says. “Here, some teams have a lot of appreciation for how long balls can create big chances for them very quickly. And on the same point, the faster you put the ball in front, the faster it comes back.”
When Thiago talks about “rhythm”, he is not referring to the speed of play itself – “that’s the same all over Europe,” he says – but rather the speed at which the game resumes at every juncture.
“Throw-ins, corner kicks, goal kicks… everything happens at more speed here and you have to adapt to that,” he says. “When there is a situation where you think you can breathe, the ball is already in play again.”
To watch him now, you would not know Thiago found the transition difficult. In fact, he has made it all look easy lately. His recent goal against Southampton, for example, bore all his hallmarks.
When there is a situation where you think you can breathe, the ball is already in play again
There was the way he checked his run to ensure he received Roberto Firmino’s pass in a yard of space; the way he glided past the wrong-footed Stuart Armstrong; the way he used the inside of his boot – always the inside of his boot – to pick out the bottom corner.
Awareness and anticipation. Intelligence and execution. These are Thiago’s areas of expertise and they have come to fore recently thanks in part to the decision to move Fabinho from defence, where he has provided cover for much of the season, back to midfield.
The Brazilian’s presence in the holding role has freed up Thiago to play his natural game. It is no coincidence that Liverpool have won all seven of the games in which the pair have started together in central midfield since the turn of the year.
“When I came here, I knew how Fabinho was as a football player, what he has done here and what he did at Monaco, but I didn’t know him personally,” says Thiago.
“He is a very smart and intelligent player. He knows how and where to be on the pitch, and he has great strength in challenges. He’s there, he’s strong and he wins all the battles for us.
“Sometimes he has to handle not just his own player but my player or another team-mate’s player as well, but he does a great defensive job and you can see also that sometimes he goes forward in an offensive way and does amazingly for us as well.”
He is a very smart and intelligent player. He knows how and where to be on the pitch, and he has great strength in challenges. He wins all the battles for us
Thiago has already developed a strong understanding with Fabinho on the pitch but he concedes it will take time to build connections like the ones he had at Bayern, where he came to know his team-mates’ movements inside-out.
“I was at Bayern for seven years,” he says. “In the end, it takes time. It’s not just about studying team-mates from outside. When you are in training with them, you see their skills and their defects as well.
“You play with all of that and that’s why football is a beautiful sport in a collective way, because you can also become better using the better skills of your team-mates.”
And those of your manager?
“He has been great since the beginning,” Thiago says of Klopp, whose Borussia Dortmund side he faced numerous times during his first two seasons at Bayern.
“He’s a very beloved person here in our team, our club and in the city as well. He’s interesting and at the same time he’s calm. He’s hard work, but with comic words as well.
“It’s very interesting to learn and to keep growing by his side.”
Thiago believes he has learnt plenty over the course of a season which, remarkably, will be the first of his senior career in which he has not won a trophy. In fact, it is only the second of the last 11 in which has not ended up a league-title winner.
For me, the experience I’ve had here is my trophy this year
Few players are more familiar with what it takes to sustain success than Thiago and Liverpool’s plight this season has reminded him just how difficult it can be.
“The feeling that I have without a title or a trophy this year is about how hard it is to get it,” he says.
“The main thing is to stay hungry but at the same time to evolve and adapt yourself, because even the maximum of 100 per cent you gave last year is not going to be enough the next year.
“You have to always be evolving and learning new things. You have to be the same 100 per cent player, but at the same time adding something new to your characteristics.”
Thiago is certainly doing that in his new surroundings and he also stresses that silverware is not his sole motivation.
“For me, the experience I’ve had here is my trophy this year,” he says.
“To join this team, to train with these players every day, to join the league, to visit many new stadiums and play against great teams… I think those feelings are so important.”
Right now, though, it is all about Anfield on Sunday, and about finishing the job in front of the fans – much like his father did in front of him all those years ago.
Watch Liverpool vs Crystal Palace live on Sky Sports Main Event from 3.50pm on Sunday; kick-off 4pm