Loris Karius knows all too well how tough life in the Premier League can be for a young goalkeeper. But he's secured the No. 1 spot at Liverpool, at least for now, and now he has a chance at a Champions League title.
Joining Liverpool in 2016 wasn't German goalkeeper Loris Karius' first foray into English football. The Stuttgart youngster had packed his bags and hooked up with Manchester City's youth academy as a 16-year-old, hoping to blossom into the team's next long-term option in goal.
When that dream died, with flawed fan-favorite Joe Hart retaining his spot in City's team for just over a decade, Karius headed back to Mainz to start his first-team career in earnest in the Bundesliga. He had returned to Germany in time to become the Bundesliga's youngest goalie to date when Thomas Tuchel gave him his Mainz debut at age 19.
It was Karius' performances with Mainz, coupled with Timo Horn's unwillingness to leave Cologne for Liverpool that prompted newly-arrived Jürgen Klopp to swoop in and hire a planned replacement for Belgian Simon Mignolet.
Job-sharing with Mignolet, sparring with the media
But Karius' time at Liverpool did not start so smoothly — coinciding as it did with a period in which Klopp was still seeking a good defensive balance to match Liverpool's attacking tenacity. (Only one member of the back four at that time, Dejan Lovren, still starts regularly in defense today.) The then-22-year-old sometimes appeared to struggle to control his box and marshal his defenders, despite being much more comfortable with the ball at his feet than Mignolet, having played as an outfielder in his youth.
Nicknames like "butterfingers," or "blunderful goalkeeper" started to crop up on back pages of the tabloids. It all culminated in a bizarre war of words with the football punditry world after a Karius mistake led to a shock 4-3 defeat to Bournemouth (at the time, Liverpool were notoriously strong against good opposition and prone to dropping points against smaller teams).
Karius took a televised battering from a trio of Sky Sports pundits and former players: Gary and Phil Neville, and Jamie Carragher. But unusually, DW's 2018 German Football Ambassador chose to hit back in a media interview, saying that Gary Neville was always negative in his analysis and that hardcore Reds fan Carragher may have been emotional about the loss. This prompted an astonishing coordinated set of put downs from the pundits, seemingly upset to be on the receiving end of criticism themselves. Even Liverpool lad Carragher told the goalie to "shut up and do your job."
Jürgen Klopp, never one to leave his players hanging, jumped into the fray with some biting comebacks of his own — mainly tied to the Neville brothers' catastrophic failures as club managers and what that would seem to suggest about their appraisal of players' talents.
Klopp has repeatedly praised and defended Karius in public, but has also regularly switched between the German and Simon Mignolet
But the damage was done and before long, Mignolet was back in the Liverpool goal on a relatively regular basis — again showing himself to be a player on a comparable level to his German teammate, albeit six years older.
Karius has since said he's stopped reading the British football press, because "one day they're praising you and the next you're a total catastrophe."
Graduating to first choice, plus the van Dijk effect
At the start of this season, still flitting between his two shot-stoppers, Klopp hit upon a compromise whereby Mignolet would play in the league and Karius in cup competitions.
The German's performances in the Champions League — no keeper can match his six clean sheets in the competition this season — ultimately earned him the first-team spot in the Premiership by the start of this year. Mignolet dropping the odd ball early in the season probably didn't hurt Karius' cause either.
Other factors had changed by this point to make the Liverpool goal a much more comfortable place to stand each week. Youth academy talent Trent-Alexander Arnold was enjoying his breakout season at right back, making the position his own. Summer signing Andrew Robertson was massively exceeding expectations at left back, going from a squad player to a first-team regular in a matter of months. And most importantly, at the heart of it all, Klopp broke the bank to make Dutch center back Virgil van Dijk the most expensive defender on the planet in January's transfer window.
Van Dijk's influence can scarcely be overstated, as he provides cohesion to a back line that had been crying out for a genuine leader for years.
In these surroundings, Karius has looked a far more complete keeper, not to mention one still full of potential at 24 years of age. Yet the relentless transfer rumors that always haunted the Premiership, and which have accelerated to match clubs' bulging budgets in recent seasons, continue to hound Liverpool's No. 1.
Indeed, if you believe everything you read in the papers, Karius started the Champions League semifinals against the man being lined up to take his job in the summer: Roma's Brazilian keeper Alisson. Alisson of course conceded seven to Karius' six — suffice to say neither leg was the type of match goalies enjoy!
And this same danger will exist in Saturday's final. While Liverpool have an attack that should scare anybody — Real Madrid included — even their improved defense remains vulnerable. Real are as well equipped as anybody to lay its shortcomings bare, and Karius can expect little sympathy from the British media if events in Kyiv cast him as the villain right before the summer transfer window.
However, the uncapped Karius, no longer one to pay the media much mind, recently told German public broadcaster ZDF that he's planning to be Liverpool's goalie for years to come, and Germany's too, before too long.