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Atletico Madrid v Liverpool: How Jordan Henderson conquered Europe and the weight of expectation

Henderson’s Liverpool transformation is complete. But the journey from the periphery to Champions League and Club World Cup winning captain was far from plain sailing.

In the summer of 2012 Jordan Henderson was shocked to be told he could leave Anfield just a year after signing for £20million from Sunderland.

Henderson described the moment he found out he was being used as a makeweight in Brendan Rodgers’ attempt to lure Clint Dempsey away from Fulham as a ‘sort of bolt from the blue’.

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He has since revealed that the prospect of not being given the opportunity to shine at Anfield reduced him to tears.

Fast forward eight years and Henderson is one of the most effective midfielders in Europe.

The 29-year-old captained Liverpool to the Champions League and Club World Cup and is on the cusp of leading Liverpool to a first league title since 1990.

He was also named as the 2019 BT England Men’s Player of the Year for his contribution to club and country.

From dispensable to dependable, Henderson’s Liverpool transformation is complete. But the journey was far from plain sailing.

In his formative years at Anfield, Henderson was the recipient of inevitable comparisons with Kop hero and then Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard. Industrious, emotional and English, the resemblance was stark.

He struggled to emerge from Gerrard’s shadow in his first year on Merseyside and was even a figure of ridicule, portrayed as a liability and a hindrance to Liverpool’s title ambitions.

The Sunderland-born midfielder established himself as a regular member of the Liverpool team in the 2013-14 season, playing in 35 Premier League matches.

He missed the home defeat to Chelsea in April 2014 when they surrendered the league title after being sent off in the 3-2 victory over Manchester City. It is no coincidence that Liverpool’s infamous Selhurst Park capitulation a week later came when he was ineligible.

A seminal moment in Henderson’s development came a year later in the 2014/15 campaign when he deputised as club captain during Gerrard’s farewell season.

He continued to divide opinion among supporters, but with activity came consistency, and after Jurgen Klopp replaced Rodgers in October 2015, Henderson, now captain of Liverpool after Gerrard’s departure, went from strength to strength.

There were some teething troubles, though. In the early days of Klopp’s revolution, he lacked positional discipline and was inhibited in the defensive midfield role.

But he matured with Klopp’s fledgling squad and cemented himself as a mainstay in the side.

He penned a new five-year deal at in 2018 after leading the club to a first Champions League final in over a decade and in a demonstrable example of his undervalued tactical intelligence, moved seamlessly into the No. 8 role to accommodate the incoming Fabinho.

He played an influential role in the club’s Champions League victory and Premier League title charge last season, drawing praise from Klopp and the largely converted Anfield faithful.

Speaking after Henderson inspired Liverpool to a 3-1 victory at Southampton in April, Klopp said he could ‘write 500 pages’ about his captain.

“Hendo, from my point of view, is a brilliant player,” he said.

“He’s our skipper, he’s a fantastic character. If I had to write a book about Hendo, it would be 500 pages.

“The most difficult job in the last 500 years of football was to replace Steven Gerrard. In the mind of the people it was like if it’s not Stevie, then it’s not good enough.

“And he has dealt with that outstandingly well so he can be really proud. Now we have to think of the future and he is a very important part of our team.”

He also claimed that ‘he can’t help’ anyone who doesn’t value Henderson’s quality after victory over Sheffield United in January.

Liverpool’s skipper, who has dropped back into the No. 6 position after Fabinho picked up an ankle injury against Napoli in November, has arguably been the club’s standout player the second half of last season and the first half of the current campaign.

His athleticism and reliability have complemented his improved range of passing and his versatility means he can brings something to every position he plays.

In the Premier League this season, Henderson has completed 1,318 successful passes (only 11 players have made more) and made 55 tackles (20 have made more).

But Henderson shouldn’t be defined by empirical data. His importance to the team is unquantifiable.

He’s an important cog in Klopp’s ruthless winning machine and Liverpool would be weaker without him.

Perceptions have changed drastically among Liverpool fans and Klopp says he is finally getting the credit he deserves.

“With Jordan, I don’t read newspapers, but I heard that people were not happy with this or this or this and I could then react to that,” he said.

“It’s important that I can say I’m completely happy with the performance even when the public perception is different - you get grades that look like you weren’t really relevant on the pitch and if I see it differently, then I tell it to the players.

“I know exactly what was expected so it’s the more important feedback. If you fulfilled that job, it’s good.”

Redemption complete, Henderson and Liverpool turn their attention to Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid in the Champions League last 16.

The 2014 and 2016 runners-up are arguably the toughest possible assignment for defending champions Liverpool despite their sub-par league showing this season.

With Liverpool’s Holy Grail in sight and Euro 2020 around the corner, there is no telling where the Henderson story ends.

What is for certain is that the turning tide of perception is long overdue.

Atletico Madrid v Liverpool is exclusively live on BT Sport 2 on TV and across our digital platforms from 7pm on Tuesday 17 February. If you’re not yet a subscriber, click here to view our wide range of sign-up packages.

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