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.

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 announce their return to Europe’s high table

There we have it, finally. It’s taken far, far longer than it ever should have done, but Liverpool are into the last sixteen of the Champions League for the first time in nine years. It is the landmark achievement of Jürgen Klopp’s tenure so far, the clearest evidence yet of the vast progress which has been made since taking the job in October 2015.

Back then, Liverpool were a side lacking an identity and purpose; a fan base divided and without much hope for the future. Just over two years on, Liverpool have announced themselves emphatically back among Europe’s elite with a swagger. They’re a fearsome proposition which no side will want to come up against in the next round.

In truth, Liverpool made hard work of a group in which they were by far the best side and having been just seconds away from securing qualification against Sevilla, a last-minute equaliser put all the pressure on the final game against a Spartak Moscow side who came to Anfield also in desperate need of a win to have any chance of progressing.

There was simply no margin for error on the night, but Liverpool played without any signs of nerves despite the pressure, delivering one of the most remarkable European performances Anfield has witnessed for many a year. Granted, Spartak were hardly robust opposition- although the Russian champions thrashed Sevilla 5-1 and came into the game on a four-match domestic winning streak.

They were far from minnows, but such was Liverpool’s sheer brilliance that Spartak looked exactly that- amateurs against professionals. From the moment Philippe Coutinho dispatched his penalty inside five minutes, the contest was effectively over as Liverpool overwhelmed and mesmerized their opponents with a scintillating attacking display of the very highest calibre.

It should not come as a total surprise, however, as Liverpool were creating an abundance of chances earlier in the season without converting them into goals. Now it’s clicked and confidence is in abundance, that creative spark is being matched by clinical finishing- although Liverpool could quite easily have scored double figures given the opportunities carved out on this occasion.

The second goal involved all four of the imperious attacking quartet, with Sadio Mané sliding the ball into Mo Salah, who released Roberto Firmino, the Brazilian squaring for Coutinho to slide the ball into the bottom corner, first time, on his weaker foot. It’s an attacking unit with the potential to devastate virtually any defence on their day- one which very few sides in Europe can come close to matching. For all the talk of the need for a 20-goal striker, it’s not unfeasible that Liverpool could have four players reach that tally this season if they continue at the current rate.

While Liverpool’s last great attack consisted of the Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge striking duo in 2013-14, supported by a younger Coutinho and an emerging Raheem Sterling, this quartet plays with an almost telepathic understanding which makes them even greater than the considerable sum of their individually outstanding parts. The pace, technique, movement and selflessness makes it almost impossible to defend against- different threats from different angles, ruthless both on and off the ball.

The game quickly became a procession, with Firmino rifling in a third to match his goal tally from the whole of last season following an excellent driving run by Mané having latched on to a controlled pass in midfield. It was another example of a complete number nine’s performance by Firmino who is slowly but surely earning the recognition his all-round contribution deserves. Mané himself scored the goal of the game shortly after half-time with a stunning volley, executed to perfection from James Milner’s teasing cross, dispatched like a bullet into the roof of the net.

Having been Liverpool’s main man last season, Mané finds himself with three others of a similar level all regularly contributing goals and assists such that there is no longer the same degree of reliance on his presence. The burden on his shoulders has been greatly lessened and he is benefiting hugely from not having to play every minute of every game, with Klopp possessing the attacking options to rotate and keep his best players fresh for the big occasion.

Coutinho sealed his hat-trick soon after- his first in Liverpool colours, taking his tally to 51 goals for the club on a night when he confirmed his world-class status with yet another quite phenomenal display, underlining exactly why Liverpool must hold firm once again should Barcelona come calling in January. While a departure at some stage seems inevitable, the Brazilian is simply too good to be letting go half way through the season- no amount of money could account for such a great loss.

We’ve witnessed his development from a precocious but inconsistent talent who offered flashes of genius, to a player who is now scoring, assisting and dominating games on a regular basis. Aside from the lack of a trophy during his time here, he has a credible claim to being considered a Liverpool great.

Mané then helped himself to a brace, managing to scrape the ball home from a Daniel Sturridge pass, before Salah capped off the victory by adding his 18th goal of the season to ensure that all four of Liverpool’s attacking unit were on the scoresheet, continuing his own remarkable goalscoring run- his 12th in the past 11 games.

Klopp seems to have stumbled upon a 4-2-2-2 shape which gets the very best out of his supreme attacking options, while also providing better defensive balance and control in midfield, more so than the 4-3-3 of last season. With Salah stationed closer to Firmino up front, with a license to drift wide, the front two are constantly interchanging and dragging defenders all over the place, while the guile and creativity of Mané and Coutinho in behind provides another dual threat, continually linking up and slicing their way through Spartak’s helpless back line with unfathomable ease.

The solid base provided by Emre Can and Gini Wijnaldum helped Liverpool control the tempo and provide an effective shield for the back four, leaving the defence far less exposed than was the case in the earlier parts of this season. Ragnar Klavan continued his recent run of impressive form, while Dejan Lovren also deserves credit for his response since the Spurs debacle. Joe Gomez, meanwhile, again performed like a seasoned professional with maturity and confidence well beyond his years.

Liverpool have now scored three or more goals in eight of the last nine games since losing to Spurs and are also showing significant signs of defensive improvement. Upgrades must still be saught in January, as the addition of a top-class centre-half could be the difference which ensures Liverpool go far in this competition having set an all-time record for goals scored in a group stage for English teams (23).

Rarely will you ever see such a dominant and explosive performance in the Champions League and regardless of who Liverpool draw in the last sixteen, this was the clearest showing yet of a side which has hit their stride- but one which still has much, much more still to give.

 

 

 

Alberto Moreno and the fickle nature of football fans

People were waiting for this to happen. It was always going to happen at some point, too. Eventually, Alberto Moreno would make a defensive mistake leading to a goal (on this occasion, two) and Liverpool fans would come crawling out to slaughter the Spaniard and claim “we were right all along- he’s an absolute liability”.

In fact, I’m pretty certain there are swathes of so-called Liverpool fans who are happy Moreno finally cost his team a couple of goals so that they can be “proven right” and their agendas satisfied once more. It’s all a bit mad, the whole thing.

Very few people expected Moreno to still be at the club come the start of this season, having made just two league starts in the entirety of 2016-17, relegated to the role of benchwarmer as James Milner was converted into a makeshift left-back while Moreno watched on.

Virtually no one would’ve expected Moreno to start the first game of the new season against Watford, let alone establish himself as Jürgen Klopp’s first choice left-back, especially after the summer signing of Andy Robertson. Quite justifiably, there were plenty of sceptics at first, yet slowly but surely Moreno won over his critics and more than warranted the faith shown in him by the manager.

The erratic defensive errors which littered his first couple of seasons at the club appeared to have been cut out as Moreno began playing with more focus and concentration than we’d ever seen before. Rather than bombing forward at every opportunity and vacating his position, leaving the left-hand side massively exposed, Moreno has shown a more mature approach in sensibly timing his raids up the wing, bringing real pace and drive to Liverpool’s attack at the right moments.

While his end product can still improve, his delivery has proved a real weapon from out wide as demonstrated by his three assists in the Champions League so far. He’s also winning more aerial battles and lunging into tackles far less often, timing his challenges much better.

I wrote a piece a couple of years back about how if Moreno’s weaknesses could be corrected, he has the raw skill set and potential to be a genuinely top-class left-back. It’s taken him a while, but as is often the case with full-backs he has matured significantly with time and we’ve seen the player many believed we’d signed from Sevilla in 2014 when Moreno came to Liverpool billed as one of the best young left-backs in Europe.

I’d go as far to say that he’s probably been Liverpool’s second best- or at least most consistent- performer this season after Mo Salah and it hasn’t gone unnoticed with the national set-up, earning a recall to the Spanish squad in the recent international break. That’s quite some achievement, given the wealth of options they have in that position.

Such has been the extent of Moreno’s renaissance that Robertson has hardly got a look in, which, although unfortunate and harsh on the Scot (he has performed very well when given the chance), is simply down to the fact that Moreno’s form has made him virtually undroppable so far.

There is a large enough body of evidence now, three full months into the season, to say with some confidence that this is not merely a purple patch for Moreno, but evidence of him working hard on the training ground to correct his faults and become a much-improved player. For that, he deserves great credit.

And so on to the Sevilla game. We’ve seen Moreno lose his head completely against his former side before, with his infamously poor performance in the Europa League final in 2016 after which many Liverpool fans had completely written him off. On this occasion, his first half was generally in keeping with his impressive performances this season, but as happened in Basel, it was like watching a different player (and a different team) in the second-half.

It was Moreno who gave away the free-kick leading to Sevilla’s first goal, before giving away the penalty leading to their second, thus completely changing the complexion of the game as the home side seized the momentum and constantly had Liverpool on the back foot.

The free-kick was unnecessary to give away, but the execution of the goal was outstanding. Wissam Ben Yedder’s darting run across goal and flicked header was timed to perfection and have Moreno very little chance to do anything about it. Sometimes in football, teams score very good goals which are extremely difficult to stop. While Moreno should’ve avoided giving the free-kick away in the first place, this kind of thing happens all the time (see Lucas Leiva’s entire Liverpool career) and on this occasion is just so happened to result in a goal.

For the penalty, it’s worth mentioning that Philippe Coutinho plays a pretty risky pass to Moreno in a dangerous position with two Sevilla players already closing him down. It’s fizzed at him with some pace and he mis-controls it with a heavy touch. He doesn’t see Ben Yedder lurking behind him until it’s too late and in sticking his foot out lightly treads on the striker who proceeds to take another three steps before eventually throwing himself to the floor.

It’s an unfortunate one and the referee takes an absolute age to give it following howls from the home crowd. Moreno obviously makes contact with Ben Yedder but his theatrics are what convinces the ref to give the penalty. Again, it is avoidable and Moreno shouldn’t be dangling a leg in the area like that, but it’s still quite unfortunate.

Needless to say, if Sevilla don’t score a stoppage-time equaliser then there’s arguably much less scrutiny on Moreno as everyone is delighted with Liverpool winning the group and progressing to the knockout phase. As it happened, the capitulation is being attributed almost entirely to Moreno and all the reaction is bolted on to his reputation based on performances from several seasons ago.

People have an established image of Moreno as an erratic, error-prone footballer who cannot defend properly and this reputation has fuelled the backlash since the Sevilla game. No one takes account of the fact it’s an emotional occasion for him playing against his boyhood club in front of a hostile crowd, let alone the fact his wife gave birth at the weekend (which he missed in order to play against Southampton). All this is going through his head, because he’s a human being.

In this context, there is, of course, an argument that Klopp might have given him the night off and given Robertson a game instead, but it’s worth considering the external factors which influence how players perform on the pitch from time to time.

Unfortunately for Moreno, vast swathes of fans appear happy to discard him once again and let a mad 15 minutes take precedence over what has been a very strong season for the Spaniard so far. Supporters appear to do very little actual supporting of certain individuals at the club- Jordan Henderson being another- and it’s a great shame to see Moreno so widely chastised and his significant progress written off on the basis of one really poor half of football in a crazy match (which still sees Liverpool in prime position to win the group).

Thankfully, in Klopp, Liverpool have a manager who backs his players to the hilt- which sometimes brings him criticism- but in this case, Moreno won’t be written off by the manager so flippantly. He’s had a thoroughly consistent and impressive season so far as one of the best performing left-backs both domestically and in Europe and he has built up more than enough credit in the bank to justify continuing as Liverpool’s first-choice. Supporters ought to be backing him, too.

 

 

 

 

 

Is Mohamed Salah’s exceptional start becoming underrated at Liverpool?

Wednesday evening. An important Champions League tie at Anfield in which Liverpool are fully expected to take another three points from Maribor- yet the visitors are far more stubborn than they were on home turf and make themselves a difficult challenge for Liverpool to break down. 0-0 at halftime and a sense of frustration starts to emerge.

Just four minutes into the second-half, however, Liverpool find that moment of genuine quality to make the breakthrough. Trent Alexander-Arnold delivers a promising cross from the right flank and it’s absolutely no surprise to see Mohamed Salah on the end of it, deftly flicking the ball into the bottom corner on the volley with a sumptuous piece of technique after making a trademark intelligent run to get himself into a scoring position.

It was Salah’s 10th goal of his debut season at Liverpool in his first 15 starts (16 appearances in total), with three assists to his name as well. For context, that’s the same record as Fernando Torres and three more than Luis Suarez managed in his first 16 appearances at the club. Yet Salah isn’t even a striker by trade, even if he finds himself taking up central goalscoring positions on a regular basis. For a wide forward to be hitting these numbers so soon after arriving represents a phenomenal start to life at his new club.

The extraordinary thing about Salah is that despite such a prolific return, there has been a significant focus from fans and pundits alike about his supposedly “poor” or “wasteful” finishing and that he ought to be converting more of the big chances he has missed. While it’s true that Salah has spurned numerous excellent opportunities, what he’s essentially being criticised for is not having a goal tally on the level of Lionel Messi. Had he scored even half the big chances he has missed so far this season, he’d probably be nearing 20 goals already and on his way to a Ballon d’Or.

This is a player Liverpool signed for £36.9 million, it’s worth remembering. Salah’s pace and intelligent movement is what allows him to get in the situations where he is expected to score with such regularity. Of course, he could be more clinical but the simple fact is he is performing at a level which puts him among the very best in the world in his position. In fact, his conversion rate of 27% is considerably better than Cristiano Ronaldo (10%), Lionel Messi (19%) and Harry Kane (14%).

Of all the “wide forwards” in Europe, only Neymar- the one who cost nearly £200 million- has more goals (11) in all competitions than Salah (10) so far, with Raheem Sterling equal in second place having also hit his 10th of the season against Napoli on Wednesday evening. Having joined a new club, learning a new system under a new manager with new teammates, Salah has hit the ground running and is delivering a goal return better than virtually every other winger in Europe apart from the world’s most expensive player of all time.

The likes of Luis Suarez, Ronaldo, Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappé, Gareth Bale, Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery, Alexis Sanchez and Eden Hazard all have fewer goals to their name than Salah at the time of writing, nearly all of which are unanimously considered “world class”- or at least have been until very recently.

Since after the 2013-14 season, Liverpool’s highest goal scorer in a single season has been Philippe Coutinho with 14, last season. In 2015-16 and 2014-15 respectively, the top scorers in all competitions were Daniel Sturridge and Steven Gerrard (both 13 goals). The fact that Salah is already on 10 with seven months of the season left to play is quite remarkable in that context.

There is, of course, always the threat of injury especially given the kind of explosive player Salah is and the number of minutes he’s getting, but should he remain fit for the vast majority of the remainder of the season, a tally of 40 goals is not unfeasible. When he first signed, something around 15-20 would’ve been considered a very decent first season at Liverpool and he’s not far off achieving that already.

He’s scored all kinds of goals, too. Poacher’s finishes inside the six-yard box. Running the length of the pitch before coolly slotting the ball home against Arsenal. A bullet header from a near-impossible angle against Leicester. An exquisite first touch to control a long ball before rifling in a low finish against Burnley. A flicked volley from a cross against Maribor. A side-footed finish on his weaker right side against Spurs at Wembley.

The debate is often raised around whether Liverpool require an orthodox striker with a more prolific goal return than Roberto Firmino and yet this negates the fact that Firmino’s movement and work rate is a key part of the reason why the likes of Salah and Sadio Mané are such a constant goal threat, benefiting from the space and opportunities opened up by Firmino.

Had Liverpool spent £60 million on a “traditional” number nine in the summer- perhaps Timo Werner or Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang, for instance- most fans and pundits would be lauding their impact had they managed 10 goals in their first 15 starts. It seems, almost paradoxically, that because Salah is a wide player, he’s getting far less credit than he deserves for his performances thus far and the speed at which he has settled in and made such a telling impact.

The focus on his end product is not to even mention his exceptional first touch, spatial awareness, dribbling in tight spaces, physical strength, work rate and one-touch passing, all of which make him such an incredibly dangerous player for defenders to deal with.

Having already won every player of the month and goal of the month award for Liverpool, along with two Champions League player of the week awards, Salah’s impact is clearly not going unnoticed. Yet there still appears to be a reticence to fully praise what he’s achieving as though his missed chances somehow discredit what is an outstanding goal return of its own accord.

It’s very easy to take for granted having a winger who’s currently scoring a goal every 1.5 games, but the reality is that only one player on the planet in the same position is managing more than Salah in that regard. It’s not often a transfer can be regarded an unmitigated success- especially given value for money- so soon into the season, but Salah can surely be considered among Liverpool’s very finest acquisitions this century, even if he isn’t fully appreciated just yet.

At 25, you would expect his development to continue on an upward trajectory and in all probability, in still adapting to his new surroundings, he’s got another few gears to go through still. It’s a frightening prospect to behold.