Real Madrid 3-1 Liverpool: Match review

Sometimes, in football, in life, everything just goes against you. Liverpool had one of those nights in Kiev. It’s the nature of the sport. It can be cruel, brutal and soul-crushing. Those three words are an apt description of how this latest cup final defeat feels in the immediate aftermath.

Liverpool have been the best side in the Champions League this season. No team has ever scored more goals in this competition in a single season. The football, at times, has been stunning beyond anything we’ve ever seen. Manchester City, Premier League champions with 100 points, sent crashing out, 5-1. Porto demolished, 5-0. Roma, in the semi-finals, 5-0 down at Anfield. This kind of thing simply doesn’t happen at this level.

To win the trophy, though, you always need a bit of luck to get over the line in the final. It’s a game of fine margins. Real Madrid have become the masters of riding their luck and obtaining those fine margins over the past three years. Liverpool, on this occasion, were on the wrong side of pretty much everything.

It’s a really strong, aggressive start from Jürgen Klopp’s side. Real Madrid were second best by some distance, struggling to cope with Liverpool’s sheer speed and intensity. When Dani Carvajal lashes the ball out 40-yards for a corner under absolutely no pressure at all, you could tell Zinedine Zidane’s players were rattled. Karim Benzema put the ball out of play under no pressure, too. Cristiano Ronaldo was more or less invisible.

And then disaster struck. When your best player, your talisman, has to leave the field with a shoulder injury after half an hour, it’s a hammer blow of the heaviest possible kind. Sergio Ramos knew precisely what he was doing has he wrenched Salah’s arm round at a bizarre angle before hauling him to the floor, as evidenced by his knowing grin to the linesman immediately afterwards.

The impact on Liverpool was two-fold. Obviously, the attack carried nowhere near the same level of threat thereafter, as Adam Lallana’s lack of pace and match fitness severely limited Liverpool’s forward line. Perhaps most significantly, though, was the mental aspect of Salah’s injury.

The players were visibly shaken at their star player having to go off so early in tears. They knew they had an almighty battle on their hands to get the job down without the Egyptian’s sensational ability to call upon, and that was the pivotal moment upon which the contest turned on its head.

Real Madrid were given an enormous lift and began to strengthen their grip on proceedings, with Luka Modric and Toni Kroos demonstrating once more why they have been the best midfield duo in world football for several years now. Liverpool’s pressing fell off dramatically as they dropped deeper and deeper, with that initial spark of the early stages put out by the shock of Salah’s untimely departure.

That said, Real Madrid were hardly battering the door down before they were gifted the opener in the most absurd circumstances imaginable, as Loris Karius inexplicably rolled the ball into Karim Benzema’s outstretched knee, as it trickled slowly over the line in agonising fashion.

Sadio Mané briefly gave Liverpool hope after stabbing home the equaliser from a corner, and shortly after saw a superb effort cannon back off the post, only for Gareth Bale to come off the bench and score one of the greatest goals you’ll ever see, a sensational bicycle kick ruthlessly dispatched with a stroke of utter genius into the back of the net. Fine margins.

When something like that happens, there’s not an awful lot you can do but applaud a truly magnificent individual effort, for which no Liverpool defenders could take any blame.

It felt like a killer blow at the time, and was compounded by another howler from Karius as he spilled Bale’s dipping 30-yard strike into the back of his own net to cap off a nightmarish evening for the German keeper.

It was a harrowing sight to see him in tears, apologising to the away supporters for his costly errors and in truth, it’s difficult to see a way back for him now at the club given the likely damaging effect this will have on his confidence.

To see such disgusting abuse thrown in his direction via social media is a sorry indictment of the way supporters treat footballers online, and while such a performance at this level is inexcusable, those errors were not intentional and from a human perspective, he’ll be going through a quite horrible time and should never have to face such vile treatment from his own supporters.

In the short term, it’s a really bitter pill to swallow and it’s absolutely gut-wrenching that such a remarkable European campaign should end in such devastating fashion. It’s the feeling of regret, that Salah’s injury deprived everyone of seeing a fully fledged Liverpool side push Real Madrid all the way, and only saw a pale imitation of the side thereafter.

Yet the memories of this run, of Porto, of Man City, of Roma, will live on. None of that is taken away by this single defeat and those nights were up there with the most joyous Liverpool fans have experienced this century. Only one team can win this competition and for Liverpool to go so close, with a squad depleted by injuries to key players (and having sold Philippe Coutinho in January), while disappointing in the extreme to fall short at the final hurdle once more, has exceeded all expectations.

It’s been a quite incredible season and with new summer signings to come in and further bolster this already brilliant Liverpool squad, the club is still on a steep upward trajectory under Klopp, in the best shape it has been in for some time.

With Naby Keita set to arrive, and a likely move for Nabil Fekir on the horizon, this Liverpool side is still far from the finished product and will continue it’s exciting evolution next season and beyond. With Champions League football already secured one more for 2018-19, Liverpool are very much back, dining at Europe’s high table once more.

Right now it hurts, a lot. It will take a while to fully get over that feeling of dreams being crushed. But to lose a final, you have to be in the final. The whole point in following a football team is to live the kind of joy and elation Liverpool have delivered throughout this latest chapter in the club’s European history, which so few clubs ever get to experience.

It’s been one hell of a ride. This single result doesn’t change any of that.

 

 

 

Roma 4-2 Liverpool (6-7 agg.): Review

A lot is spoken about the state of the modern game and the manner in which football clubs at the elite level have morphed into global institutions, a sport largely shaped by who has the superior financial resources, increasingly detached from the supporters who comprise so much of what defines a club’s very existence.

What Liverpool did in Rome on Wednesday night went beyond reaching a European Cup final for the eighth time in the club’s history. The image of the players standing in front of the away support, holding a banner in Sean Cox’s name (as requested by Jordan Henderson), is one that will live long in the memory.

Here are a group of footballers who have experienced the greatest night of their professional careers together, creating their own piece of history. They choose to come out from the dressing room and share this moment with the supporters who have followed them, driven them on throughout this remarkable European campaign.

There’s Trent Alexander-Arnold, a 19-year-old kid playing for his childhood club, having played a prominent role in reaching a Champions League final against Real Madrid, going absolutely berserk in front of the away end alongside 18-year-old Ben Woodburn, dancing to the soundtrack of Allez Allez Allez. Two teenagers from the academy, quite literally living the dream.

It’s worth taking a step back in times like these in order to fully appreciate the magnitude of what this Liverpool side has achieved. Just over three years ago, Liverpool lost 6-1 against Stoke City in Steven Gerrard’s final game. It felt like the beginning of a slow, painful slide towards mediocrity while the chasm between Liverpool and their so-called rivals appeared vast.

Step forward into the present, and Jürgen Klopp has elevated the club right back into Europe’s elite in what is just his second full season in charge. The scale of transformation in such a short space of time is phenomenal. Just think- which prospective transfer target wouldn’t want to be a part of this team?

To be in this position is beyond the wildest expectations of even the most optimistic of supporters. A lot of people, a lot of football fans- most in fact- will never get to experience anything like this. So drink it in.

There are thirty-two teams in the Champions League group stages. Financial behemoths such as Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester United, and Manchester City. There’s perennial Italian champions, Juventus. Lionel Messi and Barcelona. All have fallen and just two remain.

Liverpool have reached this position with resources vastly inferior to the aforementioned sides. A 19-year-old academy product at right-back. A left back signed for £8 million from Hull City. A goalkeeper and a centre back in Loris Karius and Dejan Lovren whom many had completely written off and were consigned to the proverbial waste bin of players deemed not worthy of wearing the shirt.

A captain in Jordan Henderson who has been widely lambasted beyond all reason throughout virtually the entirety of his Liverpool career, whose leadership has been clear for all to see throughout these past two knock-out rounds in particular, stepping up to the plate and making himself counted on the very biggest stage.

This is a Liverpool squad down to its bare bones in terms of numbers. Joel Matip and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain out for the season. Emre Can seemingly having disappeared from the face of the earth and almost certainly heading for the exit door this summer. Adam Lallana- so influential last season- has barely kicked a ball this time round. Nathaniel Clyne, likewise.

In January, Liverpool sold Philippe Coutinho- arguably the best player at the club for the past three seasons or so- to Barcelona for £149 million, and decided not to pursue a direct replacement. Klopp believed his squad would be able to not only survive in the Brazilian’s absence but progress to another level. The way in which Coutinho’s departure acted as a catalyst for a new-found sense of unity and cohesion within this Liverpool side and the supporter base is worthy of recognition. To lose a player of that quality and achieve what Liverpool have done in the second half of this season speaks volumes of both the manager and the players.

It has been no ordinary European campaign. Many dismissed the two 7-0 wins in the group stage against Maribor and Spartak Moscow by focusing on the relative lack of quality shown by the opposition, but the fact of the matter is that these results simply do not happen in this competition. Those two 7-0 wins were a precursor for what was to come.

Champions League knock-out ties are supposed to be cagey affairs. A 0-0 draw away from home would be considered a decent result for most sides. Perhaps a narrow 1-0 lead to take into the second leg. At this elite level, sides very rarely ever run away with the tie in the first leg. Liverpool, though, don’t play by these rules.

Liverpool’s opponents in the qualifying round- Hoffenheim- had gone an entire Bundesliga season undefeated at home. Porto, Liverpool’s opponents in the last sixteen, still remain unbeaten at home domestically this season. Manchester City are on target for a record points tally having already been crowned Premier League champions with games to spare.

Liverpool 6-3 Hoffenheim

Liverpool 5-0 Porto

Liverpool 5-1 Man City

All of them systematically dismantled by the ruthless genius of Mané, Salah and Firmino, supported by a cast of grafters behind who provide the platform which enables them to unleash their explosive attacking talent.

And then on to Roma. Favourable opponents over Bayern Munich or Real Madrid, sure, but that comeback against Barcelona, sending the Catalans crashing out with a sensational 3-0 victory at the Stadio Olimpico, was repeatedly cited as evidence that they should not be underestimated.

To their credit, Roma gave a strong account of themselves over the two legs. To haul themselves back into the tie from 5-0 down at Anfield was impressive. It’s not easy to go away from home with a three-goal lead. Roma were always going to throw everything at it, playing without fear and with nothing to lose. Liverpool, by contrast, had everything to lose. This is not a side built to defend a lead by sitting back and soaking up pressure.

Prior to the second leg, Roma had not conceded a single goal at home in the Champions League all season. Liverpool, though, chose not to play by the rules once more. Sadio Mané’s strike settles the nerves early on, and it’s Gini Wijnaldum’s first ever away goal since joining the club which ultimately ensures Liverpool emerge victorious over the two legs. You could not write it.

In truth, the final 7-6 scoreline flatters Roma somewhat. There should be no mistaking that they were deservedly beaten by Liverpool, even if they did manage to make things excruciatingly close right at the death. The penalty against James Milner in the first leg is very fortunate, and the one given against Ragnar Klavan is absurd. Milner’s own goal- amusing as it is in retrospect- was another significant slice of luck in Roma’s favour.

They would argue that Alexander-Arnold ought to have been sent off for blocking a certain goal with his hand, which also would have resulted in a penalty. Edin Dzeko was also felled in the box by Karius, only for the linesman to award an incorrect offside decision. Liverpool, though, were denied a stonewall penalty of their own when Mané was barged to the floor in the opening few minutes by Kostas Manolas.

Overall, this tie was not decided by the referee, but by the gap in quality between the two sides, which ultimately saw Liverpool prevail by a smaller margin than ought to have been the case. Critics will point towards Liverpool’s defensive lapses in conceding four goals on the night, but when a side like Roma are playing without any fear and launching everything within their power at goal, chaos can ensue.

Virgil van Dijk emerges from the tie having fully justified his decision to join Liverpool over Man City. He has played a pivotal role in this European campaign and looks worth every penny of the £75 million Liverpool paid to make him the most expensive defender of all time. It doesn’t phase him, at all.

For every single Liverpool player, this was a collective triumph of resilience and determination in a scenario they have never faced before. You could see it when they collapsed to the floor at the final whistle in exhaustion, just how much energy was poured into this endeavour.

And so Kiev is the reward. Real Madrid, a side littered with superstars and a pedigree of delivering in the crucial moments of the very biggest games, lie in wait. The previewing of that fixture can wait for another day. There will be lots of talk between now and then about Klopp’s poor record in the finals, but to lose a final requires reaching a final, and the fact is that Klopp has defied all the odds in reaching this stage for the second time in his five seasons managing in this competition.

Now is not the time to overthink what lies ahead, but to relish the present and take in this spectacular feat in all its resplendent glory thus far.

Man City 1-2 Liverpool: Match review

Liverpool. Champions League semi-finalists. The first time in a decade. Back among Europe’s elite. The only English club remaining in the competition. From 32 teams down to four, and Liverpool are there, dining at the high table once more.

You don’t have to step back very far in time to a point where Liverpool supporters wondered whether these days would ever arrive again. The memories of Rafa Benitez, Istanbul and Athens felt increasingly consigned to the past, as opposed to something Liverpool could realistically hope to achieve one more in the near future.

It’s difficult to overstate the scale of what Jürgen Klopp has achieved here. When the quarter-final draw came out, pitting Liverpool against the bookies’ favorites for the competition in Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, the odds were stacked heavily against Liverpool. It was in every way, the toughest possible scenario.

This City squad is the most expensively assembled squad in the history of the game. That point is worth emphasizing. They’ve strolled their way to the league title and already have one domestic trophy in the cabinet this season. For Sheikh Mansour, Guardiola and the players, Champions League glory is the essential objective in their quest to transform City into a genuine European powerhouse.

Liverpool, by contrast, steeped in European heritage, have walked this road before. In the first leg, Anfield showed how this identity endures, harnessing a unique, collective willpower beyond anything any other English club is capable of producing.

The first leg was beyond a Liverpool supporter’s wildest expectations. Yet the sense of anxiety heading into the return leg was fever-pitch. The possibility of throwing away a historic European night, surrendering such an unlikely 3-0 advantage, was a prospect too excruciating to contemplate.

When you think of the worst possible scenario, Gabriel Jesus follows that very script with the early goal every single Liverpool supporter was dreading. What followed was up there with the most nail-biting, stomach-churning halves of football you are ever likely to witness from a Liverpudlian perspective.

Wave after wave of City attack, Guardiola’s unorthodox, front-heavy formation suffocating Liverpool with an ever-tightening vice-like grip of immense pressure. Any time Liverpool did manage to get hold of possession, the ball was like a magnet, immediately sucked straight back into City’s control once more. There was no way out.

Bernardo Silva rattles the post from distance. There’s a couple of penalty claims from Raheem Sterling. Leroy Sané has a goal controversially chalked off for offside. Liverpool rode their luck to an extreme at times, but solace could be found in the fact City had not managed to build on their 1-0 lead when the referee blew for half-time.

That whistle came at the perfect time for Liverpool and whatever Klopp said, or tactically tweaked, a different side came out in the second half, playing with a renewed sense of bravery and determination to see this job through.

It was always the case that Liverpool needed to find the back of the net just once to put the tie more or less to bed. While the supporters were consumed by nerves, this mantra will have remained at the forefront of those on the pitch wearing red. No need to panic. Score once, and it’s over.

When the opportunity finally arrives, in the 56th minute, there is no other man on that pitch with the clarity of mind and technique to execute what will go down as an iconic Liverpool goal. It’s a sublime demonstration of skill and composure from Mo Salah, who stands still, drinking in the adoration of the rapturous away end, the coolest man in the stadium.

It was he who started off this two-legged victory, and he who finished it off. It’s what separates the great players from the very top bracket of world class. Stepping up in the most crucial moments, deciding the fate of contests of this magnitude. As soon as that ball nestles in the back of the net, City are down and out. There is no coming back.

Roberto Firmino adds the sheen to a stunning victory by sliding home the winner on the night, ensuring that Liverpool would not merely secure their passage to the semi-finals, but do so with a statement of intent that will have the continent stand up and take notice.

That’s three wins against Guardiola’s City in a matter of months. Twice in a week. The symbolic and psychological aspect of this is significant when it comes to challenging City next season. They are not the indomitable force many assumed only weeks ago.

There are so many individual performances to pull out, worthy of individual praise. Trent Alexander-Arnold, a 19-year-old academy graduate, repeatedly targeted throughout both legs, emerges as one of the standout players from the tie. It’s a quite incredible display of maturity which announces his arrival as a player capable of performing on the very biggest stage, whose future is without limits.

In Andy Robertson, Liverpool have a left-back who five years ago was playing in the Scottish third division, signed for £8.5 million from relegated Hull City. He too emerges as one of the outstanding players from this tie, a remarkable success story for Liverpool’s scouting department, embodying the tenacity and resilience which saw his side emerge triumphant.

Let’s talk about Dejan Lovren, also. This is a player who has been written off time and time again, widely lambasted by supporters and the wider media, deemed not good enough to play for a club of Liverpool’s stature. On the night, he is Liverpool’s man of the match, delivering an immense performance of bravery and focus on the biggest night of his professional career. It’s a display worthy of tremendous credit, a demonstration that he is capable of performing at the very highest level.

Alongside him, Virgil van Dijk is involved in City’s early goal, but is an island of calm and assurance thereafter, commanding those around him and marshaling the defence with the authority of a player very much living up to his status as the world’s most expensive defender.

In midfield, Klopp was without arguably his two first-choice central midfielders in Jordan Henderson and Emre Can- the two figures you would probably most want to start when protecting a 3-0 lead. Instead, Gini Wijnaldum- signed as an attacking midfielder from Newcastle just two seasons ago- was tasked with shielding the back four, up against two of the finest playmakers the Premier League has ever seen in David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne.

On either side, there’s James Milner, having a midfield renaissance beyond all expectations as he enters the twilight of his career, covering more ground than any other player. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, widely ridiculed when he first arrived at Liverpool, playing his first season as a central midfielder, putting his body on the line for the cause.

The front three need no description of their own.

It’s nights like these that players and supporters live for. It’s why Liverpool are a European heavyweight. For all City’s superior financial resources and superstar individuals, they could not match it, despite throwing everything at it.

When every Liverpool player is standing their, in front of the away fans at the end, clapping along to ‘Allez, Allez, Allez’ and celebrating with the supporters, it’s a really rare and special moment. For many of them, it’s probably the best night of their professional careers and they’re choosing to share it with the fans, drinking it in.

When their players are walking off the bus to the sound of a megaphone blaring out pop music, into a shiny, spaceship-like stadium lined with plastic flags, it just isn’t the same. Atmospheres like that produced in the first leg at Anfield do make a difference. That kind of thing cannot be fabricated by corporate attempts to artificially generate something of the sort.

There is something strange about this City side, so supreme in their title triumph, but now with a prevailing sense of a season which promised so much, now somewhat underwhelming. It’s almost as if they are so used to winning comfortably, that whenever anything goes wrong- as has happened three times in the past week- it does not compute, and they malfunction.

As for Liverpool, there is nothing left to fear. Of course, Roma are now the favorable draw for the semi-finals, but having conquered the previous favorites for the competition, Liverpool have demonstrated that they are capable of beating anyone and they will continue to believe that is the case.

There was an excellent quote from Klopp after the game, as he said:

“The Champions League is not about perfection. It’s about the result.”

It’s a message worth reiterating. Liverpool will likely have to beat either Bayern Munich or Real Madrid if they are to make it Number Six in Kiev in May. Both of these sides are individually superior, but as both Liverpool and Roma have shown this week, that matters little in this competition.

Liverpool are just three games away from European glory now. There is every reason to believe they can go all the way. They have already surpassed all expectations.

Whatever the conclusion of this tale, it’s been one to savor.

 

Liverpool 3-0 Man City: Match review

These are the nights upon which Liverpool has built its European heritage as a club. Manchester City arrived at Anfield with the most expensively assembled squad in the history of football, managed by a man who is widely regarded as the very best in the business. It’s important to place this context at the forefront of analyzing this tie.

Much of the pre-game talk suggested that City were simply too good a football team to be overawed by the occasion, intimidated by a vociferous, hostile Anfield crowd on a European night. History has shown countless great sides crumble under such atmospheres. As it turned out, City would be no exception to that tradition.

Just imagine being on that coach. The extra confidence boost it must give you to have 50,000 fans roaring you on like that before, during and after the game. And then the opposite effect for the City players.

The sea of red passion which lined the streets of Anfield transferred to within the stadium, a wall of ear-splitting noise orchestrated by 50,000 supporters hellbent on doing absolutely everything possible to influence the outcome of the game. Intimidate the visitors, inspire the players in Red. That’s the mantra of all this- and it worked.

City began relatively brightly, up until Mo Salah opened the scoring in front of the Kop after 12 minutes to send the crowd into raptures. Guardiola’s side disintegrated both mentally and physically in the 20 minutes that followed; a collection of world class footballers having the greatest season of their careers, transformed into a quivering wreck of nerves- regularly misplacing simple passes- by a unique chemistry of supporters and players performing in tandem to their very highest level.

That first goal only happens because of Firmino’s determination to never give up on a loose ball, stealing ahead of Kyle Walker to prod a pass toward’s the lurking Salah. The Brazilian’s pressing was almost superhuman in the opening 45 minutes, to the extent that City simply could not play out from the back in their usual, calm manner.

There’s something romantic, mystical even, about 11 footballers driven on to such heights by an atmosphere like that, elevating themselves to a level with which the opposition- regardless of their wealth of quality- simply could not live with.

When Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain rattles in the second from 25-yards, City are not just unnerved, but their confidence completely and utterly shattered by the red storm unfolding around them. It’s an absolute thunderbolt from a player who was widely mocked for his transfer fee when joining Liverpool, now stepping up to the plate with a magnificent all-round performance on the biggest stage against the highest caliber of opposition.

City’s midfield of Fernandino, Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva have been virtually unplayable for much of the season; two of the best the Premier League has arguably ever seen, supported by one of the best anchoring midfielders around. Vastly superior in individual ability to Liverpool’s trio, they were unable to deal with the sheer relentless pressure they were put under throughout the first half. They were overrun and outplayed.

When Sadio Mané headed in Liverpool’s third on the night from Salah’s sumptuous chipped pass, the annihilation was complete. From that moment on, Liverpool had the commanding lead they could only have dreamed of. It would be a test of game management, discipline, and concentration for the remaining hour of the contest- qualities which Liverpool have long been accused of lacking, particularly against opposition of the highest quality.

If the first half was a demonstration of Jürgen Klopp’s blueprint of sensational, ruthless attacking football, the second half was equally impressive in terms of the manner in which Liverpool were able to dig in and withstand constant pressure from a City side desperately looking for an away goal to salvage a disastrous start to the tie.

Every single Liverpool player stepped up to the plate and made their contribution. Trent Alexander-Arnold put in one of the greatest performances by a Liverpool right by in many a year. He came in for plenty of criticism after recent games against Manchester United and Crystal Palace, and City clearly targeted him here with constant diagonal balls to isolate him one-on-one against one of the most precociously gifted wingers in world football at the moment, in Leroy Sané.

Trent dominated that battle all game, gettering the better of Sané time and time again with perfectly timed tackles, headers and interceptions. It was a remarkable display of maturity and passion from a 19-year-old kid, representing his hometown club, in the biggest game of his career, up against some of the most expensive footballers of all time. It was a performance to be proud of, in the extreme.

On the other side, Andy Robertson was typically terrific, exploiting Guardiola’s decision not to start Raheem Sterling by marauding up the left-flank throughout the first half. City could not deal with his bullish, driving runs, while he remained resolute as ever in his defensive duties in the second-half, effectively rendering City’s right-hand side impotent.

In the centre of defence, Virgil van Dijk delivered the kind of imperious display you would expect from the world’s most expensive defender, winning 100% of his duels and providing the commanding, composed presence which helped Liverpool successfully preserve a crucial clean sheet under immense pressure.

Alongside him, the much-maligned Dejan Lovren delivered the finest performance of his Liverpool career with aggressive, front-foot defending, constantly in the right place at the right time to clear any danger that came his way. He proved that he is capable of delivering at the highest level and he must now sustain this level if Liverpool are to progress further in the competition.

In front of the back four, Jordan Henderson gave a superb captain’s performance, snapping into challenges and breaking up play to stifle the threat of De Bruyne and Silva alongside James Milner, whose performances in midfield throughout the second half of this season have continued to surpass all expectations.

All across the pitch, there was quality and passion in abundance from Liverpool in order to manage the game so effectively after the first-half blitz.

This must go down as one of the all-time great Liverpool European performances; a display which will have made the rest of the continent stand up and notice. It’s a night of which the manager, the players and the supporters should be enormously proud. A collective spirit and unity that so few- if any- clubs are capable of harnessing to the same extent.

Importantly, the job is still only half done and the tie far, far from over. Liverpool, though, have put themselves in the best position they could possibly have conceived of at this stage. Something special is brewing.

Allez, allez, allez.

Crystal Palace 1-2 Liverpool: Match review

In many seasons of recent years gone by, Liverpool do not come back to win that game. Selhurst Park has felt like something of a cursed stadium for Liverpool ever since the infamous debacle at the end of the 2013-14 season, but since Jürgen Klopp has arrived he has now won three consecutive games there.

It’s a ground which is right up there among the most hostile atmospheres of any Premier League club and as an opposition player, it cannot be a pleasant place to play football for 90 minutes. To be able to rise above that and come out with three points despite a performance which was well below par, coming off the back of an international break, speaks volumes of the mental resolve this Liverpool side have.

There was the comeback against Leicester at Anfield in late December, when Mo Salah’s brace delivered a crucial three points after Jamie Vardy’s early opener. Again, away against Burnley, Liverpool found a way to grind out three points in difficult circumstances thanks to Ragnar Klavan’s stoppage time winner.

Here, it was Salah who delivered the killer blow to send Roy Hodgson’s Crystal Palace plummeting further towards the drop zone, while simultaneously ensuring what could prove a hugely significant victory in terms of securing Champions League football for the Reds again next season, opening up a 10-point gap on Chelsea before their encounter with Tottenham Hotspurs on Sunday.

There was a sense of deja vu when Palace took the lead after 13 minutes when Loris Karius collided with Wilfried Zaha who had reached the ball first. It was a tactic which Man United deployed effectively at Old Trafford, targeting Trent Alexander-Arnold with long, diagonal balls into the right channel, and one which Palace were able to exploit multiple times on this occasion.

Luka Milivojevic made no mistake from the spot, dispatching an excellent penalty into the bottom right corner. As is often the case against lower quality opposition, when they are given a lead to protect, they can prove very difficult to break down as there is little incentive to commit many numbers forward. In truth, Zaha carried Palace’s attack almost by himself, constantly tormenting Alexander-Arnold with a wicked combination of speed and trickery.

The first half’s major flashpoint came when Sadio Mané picked up a booking for simulation in what was the first of a number of controversial refereeing decisions in the game. Mané’s leg had clearly been tripped up inside the box, but it was his theatrical and delayed collapse to the floor which drew the yellow card, as opposed to a penalty.

As both Jamie Redknapp and Graeme Souness explained at half-time, it was both a clear foul as well as an exaggerated reaction by Mané, who delivered one of the strangest individual performances of the season in a number of ways.

Indeed, it was Mané who ghosted in ahead of Mamadou Sakho to stab home the equalizer early in the second-half after superb work by James Milner to lose his man and deliver the cross, as Liverpool came out of the blocks quickly with a point to prove.

Palace responded well, however, and began to crank up the pressure themselves with Christian Benteke missing a couple of glorious, gilt-edged opportunities to make his mark against his former club, displaying a lack of composure and confidence from a striker who has scored just twice in the league all season.

A further bizarre incident involving Mané came as he found himself hacked down on the edge of his own penalty area. It appeared an obvious foul, only for the referee not to award a free-kick. Mané then decided to pick the ball up- a clear, deliberate handball- for which the referee correctly awarded a subsequent free-kick, but astonishingly lacked the conviction to issue a second booking.

Klopp intervened soon after to remove Mané from the action before he got himself a red card in what was a very sensible change. Adam Lallana’s rotten luck continued as he was forced off with what looked like a serious injury only three minutes after entering the fray, but it was another midfield switch which significantly changed the complexion of Liverpool’s forward play.

The midfield had been lacking creativity and spark throughout, before Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s introduction brought a much-needed injection of energy, drive and incision. Chamberlain had combined well with Milner to tee up Salah who was unable to get the final touch on the cross, but it was a warning sign of what was to come.

A draw would not have been a disastrous result for Liverpool here, but with the opportunity to make another significant leap towards securing a top-four finish up for grabs, there was never any chance of settling for a point.

Chamberlain delivered a precise, raking pass to Andy Roberston on the edge of the Palace penalty area, which the Scotsman cushioned perfectly into the path of Salah whose first touch and right-footed finish bore the hallmarks of a player who has the all-time Premier League record for goals in a season in his sights, bagging his 37th of the campaign in all competitions (29 in the league) to send the traveling Kop into raptures.

A crucial late interception from Virgil van Dijk and a last-minute tackle by Roberto Firmino, tracking back to his own corner flag, helped haul Liverpool over the line and withstand a barrage of long balls by a desperate Palace side to preserve the hard-fought victory.

It was one of those wins which feels very much like more than just three points, as Liverpool showed once again that they are capable of grinding out results on the rare occasions when their scintillating attacking play doesn’t quite click into gear.

It’s one more vital step towards that top four finish, helping maintain the positive winning momentum heading into the first leg of the Champions League tie against Manchester City. This was the first hurdle of a pivotal period for Liverpool, successfully passed, in the sweetest- if not most comfortable- of manners.

 

 

 

Porto 0-5 Liverpool: Match review

It’s often difficult to judge Portuguese teams in the Champions League. Based on their domestic form- top of the league and unbeaten at home, having conceded just 10 goals in 21 matches, Porto appeared to be potentially tricky opponents on paper, albeit a favorable draw for Liverpool.

What unfolded on the soaking wet grass, however, was a complete and utter non-contest, in which Liverpool, in their fluorescent tangerine kit, delivered one of the finest all-round Champions League performances from an English side in years. Indeed, this was one of the most accomplished displays of Jürgen Klopp’s tenure as Liverpool systematically and ruthlessly dismantled the hosts in an almost nonchalant manner.

The opening stages were somewhat evenly contested, with Porto showing some delicate touches on the ball- particularly through Yacine Brahimi, by far the most likely threat down the left-wing. Yet Liverpool had a confidence and assurance about themselves in possession- disciplined, yet fully capable of unleashing their devastating attacking weapons at any moment.

When the opening goal arrived 25 minutes in after Jose Sa fumbled Sadio Mané’s shot over the line following a driving forward run by Gini Wijnaldum, it felt as though it had been coming as Liverpool increasingly asserted their superiority across all areas of the pitch.

Mo Salah doubled the scoring just four minutes later, following in James Milner’s superb curling effort which crashed off the post, the Egyptian demonstrating the class and composure of a player brimming with confidence, safe in the knowledge he is right up there with the very best footballers on the planet at this moment in time.

Salah, juggling the ball over the keeper’s head, was always fully in control as he stabbed the ball over the line for his 30th goal of the season- a simply remarkable turn, all the more so by reaching the landmark by mid-February. He now needs just seven more goals to become Liverpool’s record goalscorer in a single season in the Premier League era, as he closes in on Robbie Fowler’s career-high tally of 36.

While Liverpool’s game management has left much to desire on several occasions when leading games this season, Klopp’s team never let up, working tirelessly off the ball, particularly through the pressing of the ever-industrious Roberto Firmino and the midfield trio of Jordan Henderson, Wijnaldum and Milner who controlled the midfield to great effect throughout.

The third goal, arriving eight minutes into the second-half, was vintage Klopp football at its finest, with Firmino starting off a rapid counter-attack with a neat flick, before latching on to Salah’s perfectly weighted through ball, as an onrushing Mané anticipated the rebound from the Brazilian’s shot to tap in from close range.

Mané is a player who has been lacking in confidence for some time now, influencing games while not being anywhere near his peak level- his first touch and decision-making strangely lacking, in comparison to the virtually unplayable figure of last season. He needed a big statement performance, and this was the perfect way to do so, securing his hat-trick with a vicious drive from outside the penalty area for Liverpool’s fifth on the night, after Firmino had converted from close range after excellent work by Milner down the left.

It was a stunning demonstration of ruthless counter-attacking football, combined with total domination in every department. While scoring five goals away from home in a European knockout tie is an extraordinary feat in itself, the imperious defensive performances by Virgil van Dijk and Dejan Lovren were just as impressive, as the duo ensured Porto’s albeit limited threat was contained in order to preserve a valuable clean sheet.

The Dutchman, in particular, not only showed his aerial prowess on countless occasions, but also his ability to play an integral role in Liverpool’s build-up play from a deeper position, spraying several excellent long, diagonal balls out wide to switch play quickly and accurately, thus creating gap’s in Porto’s shape to be exploited.

Andy Robertson, too, deserves enormous credit for another masterful performance at left-back, with the Scot increasingly looking like one of the best bargains Liverpool have discovered in years, combining defensive nous with boundless energy and consistently dangerous delivery from out wide in advanced areas.

While there is never any room for complacency in this competition, Liverpool have put themselves into the best possible position heading into the second-leg at Anfield where they will be fully expected to seal their passage through to the quarter-finals with minimum fuss.

This latest resounding victory- following the two 7-0 drubbings of Maribor and Spartak Moscow in the group stages- is yet another statement to Europe’s elite that Liverpool, when they click, are a force to be reckoned with in this competition.

Tougher tests will come, of course, barring a miracle from Porto in the return leg, but as the highest scorers in the competition, overtaking PSG this evening, no team will relish coming up against Liverpool in this vein of form.

 

 

 

 

Liverpool 2-2 Tottenham Hotspur: Match review

For all the many valid points of praise and criticism one might level at this Liverpool side, there is never, ever a dull moment. It might not be good for the heart, but it makes for a genuinely pulsating spectacle on a regular basis. Their propensity for the ridiculous is unrivaled across the Premier League.

While the previous fixture at Wembley back in October saw Liverpool taken to pieces by a rampant Spurs side, coursing with confidence, Jürgen Klopp and his team have improved immeasurably since, embarking on an 18-match unbeaten run which only recently came to an end following the shock defeat against Swansea.

Having recovered well with a comfortable 3-0 win against Huddersfield in midweek, Liverpool came flying out the traps against Spurs, taking the lead inside three minutes as Mo Salah pounced on an undercooked backpass by Eric Dier, slotting the finish coolly past Hugo Lloris for his 27th goal of the season- making the Egyptian the fastest ever Liverpool player to reach 20 Premier League goals, reaching the landmark in 25 games, overtaking the previous record held jointly by Daniel Sturridge and Fernando Torres (both 27 games).

Liverpool continued to press and harry Spurs into submission throughout the opening 45 minutes, constantly forcing mistakes and asserting their superiority. The final pass, however, was lacking, and the prevailing sense was one of a missed opportunity when the scoreline was still a slender 1-0 lead heading into the break.

To their credit, Spurs were a team transformed in the second-half, as Liverpool appeared lethargic and lacking in intensity as the visitors increasingly cranked up the pressure. There was no route out for Liverpool as Roberto Firmino was unable to sustain his usual energetic defending from the front, while the gaps in the Liverpool midfield grew ever wider and more frequent.

In a bid to halt the shift in momentum, Klopp made two proactive changes in replacing Jordan Henderson (impressive, but only recently returning from injury) and Sadio Mané, with fresh legs in the form of Gini Wijnaldum and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. The double change had scant effect on proceedings, however, as Spurs continued to probe in search of the equalizer.

It felt increasingly likely that Liverpool would eventually succumb to the immense pressure they found themselves under, having sat back so passively for the duration of the second-half, allowing Spurs to assert themselves in a manner they weren’t able to in the first-half.

Loris Karius made a superb intervention to deny Heung-Min Son from close range, but the tide eventually could not be held back any longer. The eventual equalizer came not from a carefully carved-out opportunity, but from a 25-yard piledriver from an unlikely source in the substitute, Victor Wanyama, who gave Karius no chance with the thunderous power behind his strike.

Although Karius might have done better to clear the ball with his initial punch from Christian Eriksen’s cross, sometimes one has to simply take their hat off to a truly phenomenal hit- a one in a hundred kind of strike from a player very rarely on the scoresheet.

Seizing the initiative, Spurs continued to pour forwards, this time in search of a winner, as the most chaotic of finales ensued. With three minutes of normal time left to play, Dele Alli slid Harry Kane through on goal, with the ball taking a slight deflection off Dejan Lovren on its way through. Kane made the very most of the opportunity, falling to the ground after the faintest of brushes with Loris Karius, with the striker making sure to initiate the contact

John Moss, the referee, awarded the penalty before consulting his linesman who appeared to point out Kane had been offside. Confusion over the offside rule seemed to preoccupy the pair in discussion, apparently unclear as to whether Lovren’s diversion should have altered the decision. Regardless, Moss was unchanged by the linesman’s comments, standing by his decision.

Kane, one goal short of a century in the Premier League, blasted the ball straight down the middle- a tactic which usually works against most keepers, who either dive to their left or right, rarely remaining central. Karius, however, stood his ground and parried the ball away, as Erik Lamela ballooned the rebound high and wide.

It was an excellent stop by the German who enjoyed arguably the finest performance of his erratic Liverpool career thus far, only enhancing his reputation after having been installed as Klopp’s new number one.

It appeared as though Liverpool had just about done enough to cling on for the draw, but this was only the beginning of a remarkable passage of play in which Liverpool managed to snatch what looked to be a sensational winner, only to relinquish their lead once more in the dying seconds.

Salah, jinking past four Spurs defenders before stabbing the finish high into the roof of the net, delivered a goal of the very highest order- the kind Lionel Messi would be proud of. It deserved to be the winner and it is an enormous shame that such a moment of sheer genius would be overshadowed by what followed.

Just as Liverpool appeared to have secured the three points in stoppage time, Virgil van Dijk- imperious in his all-round performance- dangled a leg in front of Erik Lamela inside the penalty area. It wasn’t the wisest of moves by the Dutchman, although any contact was minimal and the Argentine had no interest in the ball whatsoever, theatrically flinging himself to the ground.

The referee, stood several yards away, was not interested in any penalty claims, only for play to continue for another few seconds before the linesman called the referee’s attention. After another lengthy conversation, the referee this time decided to change his mind based on the linesman’s judgment (who had been stationed much further away from the incident) and overturn his original decision, awarding Spurs a penalty in the 95th minute.

For all the talk of VAR taking too long and breaking up the flow of the game, the referee and his linesman spent an excessive amount of time discussing both penalty incidents on this occasion, both of which were highly dubious to say the very least. Surely, given the technology is available, it would only be sensible for the incidents to be reviewed on a screen so that the correct decisions could be made more often than not, rather than the guesswork which appeared to be at play on this occasion.

This time, Kane made no mistake from the spot as he hit his 100th Premier League goal to snatch a point from Liverpool’s grasp right at the death.

Liverpool could feel hard done by regarding the officials, although the two penalty decisions should not obscure the fact that Spurs were much the stronger side in the second-half as Liverpool failed to manage the game effectively while in front, on two occasions.

On the balance of play, a draw is probably just about the right result, but to save a late penalty and score a stoppage-time goal to go 2-1 in front, only to surrender the victory with barely seconds left on the clock is nonetheless a difficult blow to stomach.

The draw leaves Liverpool still in control of their own destiny and on the face of it, it’s a fairly decent result against a very good side. The manner in which events unfolded, however, means it feels more like a defeat, as Salah’s solo stunner ought to have opened up a much-needed five-point cushion.

As has proven the case on numerous occasions this season, Liverpool couldn’t quite haul themselves over the finish line, and the quest to finish inside the top four for a second consecutive season looks set to be another almighty tussle.

Liverpool 4-3 Man City: match review

It might take a while to appreciate just how phenomenal a game of football this was. For the neutral, it surely goes down immediately as an all-time Premier League classic- a hectic, scintillating demonstration of devastating attacking football from the two most thrilling sides in the country.

Man City’s hopes of an invincible season have been dashed, but Pep Guardiola’s side are still well on track to stroll their way to the title on a record-high points tally. No team has emerged victorious against them all season until now, with good reason. Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool have shown they are the only side capable of going toe-to-toe and playing them at their own game without getting torn to pieces. It took an immense showing of both quality and sheer effort to overcome what has, until now, proven an unstoppable force this season.

While City’s two late goals shifted the scoreline from a complete annihilation to a narrow victory, this was, in many ways, the finest performance from Liverpool during the Klopp era. Several momentary defensive lapses aside, this was a display of phenomenal verve and cohesion, such that City’s defenders had to cope with a degree of pressure they simply haven’t faced from any other side.

The midfield trio of Emre Can, Gini Wijnaldum and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain functioned hugely effectively as a unit to help stem the tide of City’s attacks while also driving forward and setting Liverpool on the front foot. Chamberlain, in particular, was simply magnificent throughout, delivering the finest performance of a blossoming Liverpool career- a player re-energised, re-motivated and clearly loving his football as part of this team.

His goal was illustrative of his new-found confidence, picking the ball up from a deeper position before aggressively surging forward and lashing a low, pinpoint finish into the bottom corner past Ederson for his fourth in Liverpool colours. It’s the kind of goal he would never have scored several months back, but one can only assume that his work on the training ground under a manager who believes in his ability and consistently deploys him in his favoured role have been integral to his upward trajectory, establishing himself as a key cog in the Klopp machine in the role vacated by the recently departed Philippe Coutinho.

While the Brazilian possessed certain qualities unmatched by any other player in the Liverpool squad, his defensive contribution while playing in midfield could often be called into question and left the side somewhat unbalanced at times. Here, Liverpool’s work rate to win back possession by closing City down relentlessly was evident from the first minute. They were hardly given a second to breathe.

Throughout the duration of the first-half, Liverpool were largely diligent in their defensive work, only to be undone by a momentary lapse in concentration with Joe Gomez caught out by a raking crossfield pass to Leroy Sané on the left flank. The German burst into the penalty area and fired the equaliser past his compatriot, Loris Karius, who ought to have done better at his near post despite the ferocious power of the strike.

For Liverpool to have expended so much energy and to play so well during the first half, only to go in level at the break, could easily have damaged morale. To keep up that intensity in the second-half against a City side with a knack of scoring multiple late winners this season would be an enormous task- but one Liverpool showed they were more than capable of stepping up to.

That spirit, grit and determination was embodied by the performance of Andy Robertson, who turned in one of the finest left-back displays from a Liverpool player in years. The Scot dealt superbly with Raheem Sterling- a player in the form of his life, constantly terrorising defences this season- with his tough tackling, well-timed headers and interceptions, as well as his lively foraging runs up the wing.

City, however, were starting to crank up the pressure, until Chamberlain set Roberto Firmino through on goal with a sumptuous through ball. The Brazilian still had plenty to do, however, proceeding to shrug off the attentions of John Stones, before lofting a sublime, curling chipped finish in off the post to regain the lead- a stunning piece of individual quality, heavily reminiscent of the kind of goal Luis Suarez used to score in his prime.

It takes Firmino’s tally for the season up to 17, and along with his colossal all-round contribution in terms of pressing, movement, link-up play and chance creation, the Brazilian is quietly establishing himself as one of the very finest players in the league this season. There’s not a single forward in Europe who executes the complex role Firmino takes up in Klopp’s system and this was just the latest evidence of why he is the perfect player to operate as the attacking fulcrum of this Liverpool side- full of quality himself, while also elevating the performances of those around him.

He’s simultaneously a creator, a defender and now an increasingly prolific goalscorer- with Firmino in the side, it almost feels as if you’re playing with more than 11 men. Just imagine having to defend against that.

In a remarkable nine-minute frenzy, Liverpool put City to the sword twice more, with Sadio Mané lashing an unstoppable left-footed drive into the top corner after excellent work by Mo Salah, before the Egyptian bagged his 24th goal of the season with a sensational 45-yard lob after intercepting Ederson’s under-hit clearance, to put Liverpool firmly in the driving seat.

Despite holding such a commanding lead, however, the game never felt quite over with City still pouring forward in numbers with so much attacking quality in their ranks. Liverpool are not a side built to shut games down by sticking ten men behind the ball, and sure enough Bernardo Silva- on as a substitute for Sterling- swept the ball home from close range with eight minutes of normal time to go.

Liverpool appeared to have successfully ridden out a late storm, only for Ilkay Gundogan to put hearts in mouths as he prodded in City’s third in stoppage time to make it 4-3. It would have been beyond devastating for Liverpool to throw away three points after such a gargantuan display of endeavour and that very nearly became the reality as Sergio Aguero flashed a header into the side netting in the dying seconds from a Kevin De Bruyne free-kick.

Rather than elation, the immediate sense at the final whistle was one of enormous relief, having managed to hold on for what is by far and away the biggest win of the season, taking Liverpool on to an 18-match unbeaten run and now up to 3rd in the table, pulling ahead of Chelsea on goal difference.

To step up and deliver such a performance in light of the blow of losing Coutinho and without the presence of Virgil van Dijk speaks volumes about the character and depth of this Liverpool side, inflicting City’s first league defeat of the season in spectacular style. While the frenetic finale somewhat took the edge off what would have been an emphatic thrashing, there should be no underestimating just how big a win this is in terms of morale for the remaining months of the season.

The target for Liverpool should be to establish themselves as the most likely challengers to City for the title next season and on this evidence, they are more than capable of doing so. City will be well aware of that themselves, too, having faced their most uncomfortable ninety minutes of the season, by some distance.

Although there still remains plenty of room for improvement and upgrades in individual personnel, this is arguably the biggest statement victory under Klopp, overcoming what is unequivocally one of- if not the most- formidable teams in Premier League history.

It ought to be celebrated as such.

 

 

Burnley 1-2 Liverpool: A slice of Estonian magic kicks off the new year in style

Of all the ways to win a football match, this just about tops it. Having conceded a hugely disappointing late equaliser, facing the prospect of two painfully dropped points, to then go back up the other end and bag the winner in the 94th minute via a combination of the much-maligned Dejan Lovren and Ragnar Klavan from an Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain free-kick right at the death, is pretty much the perfect start to the new year. Such glorious scenes.

This time a year ago, Liverpool dropped two points as Sunderland equalised with a late penalty to draw 2-2, which set about a malaise which proved hugely damaging throughout January and February. It was a real momentum killer, crushing morale and sapping belief. This feels like the very opposite.

Aside from the precious three points gained, the psychological benefit of winning the game in such a manner is something which this squad will now carry going forwards from here. Twice in a matter of days, Liverpool have responded to setbacks against two tough, gnarly opponents, by digging in and showing a collective spirit and drive to eventually win the battle.

This was a battle in every sense of the word. It’s what Burnley do. They compete, they scrap, they make the game horrible. They’re better than any side in this league at doing it. Liverpool, though, stood up to the challenge and weren’t afraid to put themselves about and engage in the physicality of the contest.

A first half which was devoid of any creativity or fluidity from either side was merely the jostling match before the real fight in the second half. It was far from a classic Liverpool performance and the attack struggled to click in the absence of Phil Coutinho, Mo Salah and Roberto Firmino. It was a performance of graft, rather than guile, for the most part.

Such is extent of individual quality within this squad, however, that a moment of brilliance was always likely to occur at some point. Sure enough, it came from Sadio Mané- a player enduring the first real rough patch of form in his Liverpool career. Collecting a superb, whipped cross from Trent Alexander-Arnold, Mané swivelled and unleashed a rocket into the roof of the net to get the goal he so clearly wanted and needed. A stunning strike on his weaker foot to give his side the breakthrough- and what should also serve as a welcome confidence booster for a player who clearly has so much ability to influence a game, even when off the boil.

As has proven the case throughout this season- and much of Jürgen Klopp’s tenure- a 1-0 scoreline is rarely ever enough for Liverpool and despite defending resolutely for the majority of the game, it was no huge surprise when Burnley eventually found a way through themselves. A momentary lapse in concentration from Klavan and Joe Gomez was all it took for Johann Gudmunsson to pounce on a flick-on at the back post for the equaliser in the 87th minute.

Gomez was largely excellent- as he has been throughout the campaign thus far- but moments like this are a notable weakness of his and an obvious area for him to improve. Eradicating these kinds of lapses is all part of his development and will surely come with time as he gains experience.

It felt like another sucker punch, coming so late on, after so much effort had been put into maintaining the slender margin. Memories of Watford, Chelsea and Sevilla this season are still fresh and to suffer yet another draw having been so close to the victory line would have dealt a real blow to the general morale around the club, as well as the points tally.

And then it happened. A trademark, driving run by Emre Can won the free-kick, which Oxlade-Chamberlain- magnificent in his performance once again- curled it dangerously into the box for Lovren to nod across goal for Klavan to bundle in the winner. For a few seconds, there was a feeling of dread that Liverpool might be denied once more by an offside flag, but sure enough, it counted this time. Absolute euphoria ensued.

Wins like these don’t come around very often. Liverpool have produced two of them in the past few days and it is a huge credit both to the players and the manager- whose rotation throughout the Christmas period has paid dividends- that they’ve been able to haul themselves over the line when it would have been so easy to buckle and drop points.

It’s a moment of sheer and utter elation which ought to be properly cherished. Liverpool haven’t scored many late winners at all this season. To do so away, against Burnley, where very few sides will take maximum points this season, having made seven changes to the side who beat Leicester, is a real demonstration of the character of this squad- as well as the depth which allows the likes of Adam Lallana to come in and make such a positive impact on his return to the side.

Another win which feels very much more than just three points and one which builds on the momentum which has come with a 16-match unbeaten run and the feel-good factor brought by the arrival of Virgil van Dijk. This was the most perfect of ways to kick start 2018, a year which holds enormous promise for Liverpool as they continue their upward trajectory under Klopp.

 

 

 

Liverpool 2-1 Leicester: The Reds fight back to end 2017 on a high

Time wasting within the first 10 minutes. Kasper Schmeichel taking 30 seconds for every goal kick. Harry Maguire not giving the ball back after Mo Salah’s equaliser. Wilfried N’Ddidi kicking the ball into the corner flag rather than back to Loris Karius as is conventional practice. Leicester fans ringing out the old “Feed the Scousers” chant, because poverty and hunger is absolutely hilarious and something to mock. Then the Steven Gerrard songs.

Liverpool were having none of it. Here, there was an absolute collective refusal among the players, the manager and, crucially, the Anfield crowd (with a certain £75 million Dutchman in attendance) to let Leicester walk away with anything from the game. These were Liverpool’s three points.

All across the pitch there was a willingness to fight, to scrap, to battle for 90 minutes against a side who are probably the best of the rest outside the top six in this league. Even when Joel Matip’s careless loose pass gifts Jamie Vardy the chance to open the scoring just three minutes in, there was always a sense that Liverpool could claw this one back. The players sensed it, the crowd sensed it. They drove each other on.

It was perhaps the clearest example this season of why Jürgen Klopp puts so much emphasis on the role of a positive atmosphere in shaping what happens on the pitch. The contrast with the 0-0 draw against West Brom, for instance, was stark. That day, the mood in the stands was toxic. Fans slating their own players, spreading anxiety and impatience throughout the stadium. Not this time.

Against Leicester, all the vitriol was directed at Leicester and the referee, as it should be. Rather than moaning at Loris Karius, the crowd were vociferous in their howling and hissing at Schmeichel’s blatant attempts to run the clock down and the referee’s endorsement of that in refusing to take any kind of action.

Conceding the early goal galvanized, rather than knocked Liverpool’s confidence. The players continually surged forward, carving out openings, putting doubt into the Leicester collective mindset. Sadio Mané has two goals ruled offside and Salah misses a couple of very presentable opportunities, but rather than feel sorry for themselves and accept another “one of those days”, Liverpool kept on going, kept showing an incessant belief and determination to turn the game round.

Eventually it came, seven minutes into the second-half, via a sublime backheel pass from Mané- a real moment of quality from a player you feel just needs a goal to regain his lost confidence of late. Salah, in the right place as ever, showed enormous composure and skill to dance his way past a multitude of blue shirts, biding his time until pulling the trigger and lashing the ball home past Schmeichel for the equaliser.

Such is the Egyptian’s self-assurance that missing chances never gets to him. He knows if he keeps putting himself in the right areas, he’ll stick one or two away. It’s a rare degree of mental strength which sets him apart from most players- aside from his phenomenal footballing ability. Salah came close to notching his second after looping a shot just over the bar from Philippe Coutinho’s dinked ball, which would have been a terrific goal had it nestled in the net.

Sure enough, he bagged the winner in remarkable fashion, spinning away from a helpless Maguire before cleverly slotting the finish at the near post for his 23rd of the season. It wasn’t even a half-chance, but the sheer physical strength for a player which such a low sense of gravity and close ball control makes it almost impossible for defenders to cope with, as Maguire found out in humiliating fashion. There are very few players in world football playing at this level at the moment.

Having fought their way into the lead, there was to be no late collapse this time as Liverpool demonstrated steel and grit in abundance to see the game out and protect those precious three points they’d fought so hard to earn. It was encapsulated by Emre Can hoofing the ball into the corner- just as Ndid had done in the first half- to run the clock down late on. A gorgeous piece of snide play to give the visitors a piece of their own antics.

Despite a late aerial bombardment from a series of Christian Fuchs long throws, hurled menacingly into the box, Liverpool were able to stand firm and clear the danger. Dejan Lovren was robust and aggressive when he needed to be, as was the outstanding Joe Gomez who displayed composure and maturity of a consummate, seasoned professional, in his work both on and off the ball. Even Karius, who has so often been the target of mass-criticism, stood up to be counted and exhibited some excellent distribution to get his side quickly on the front foot, while also commanding his penalty area with great assurance.

This Liverpool side have repeatedly shown their capacity to steamroll teams by four or more goals this season. This kind of victory, however, comes with a special sense of satisfaction at having won both the sporting and psychological battle to overcome the early setback. This Leicester side might not be the league-winning outfit of a couple of years ago, but they do still possess real quality in attacking areas and always make it into a proper contest.

Liverpool were up to the task, however, and demonstrated character, grit and determination in bucketloads to ensure their current surge of momentum continues into the new year, with a squad now well-equipped to navigate January much more successfully than last season.

This was the perfect way to sign off 2017- a year of ups and downs- but, undoubtedly, one of significant and sustainable progress for Liverpool.