Liverpool have work to do if they are to test Champions League glory again
For a short and impressive period at the beginning of their UEFA Champions League tie against AC Milan on Wednesday night, the Liverpool of 2017-2020 were back, and they were back meaning serious business.
Liverpool have offered glimpses of returning to their former glory already this season, but nothing has been quite as exquisite as this.
During the first 15 minutes of their eventual 3-2 victory, Jurgen Klopp’s charges hunted like wild dogs, barely allowing the Rossoneri out of their own half, always on the back foot. For the first time in a long time in Europe, Klopp’s previously well-oiled machine was firing on all cylinders.
The stunning counter-pressing, the quick exchanges, the intoxicating Anfield crowd firing the players up like a shot of amphetamine – it was all here, full to the brim.
The stats from that entertaining quarter of an hour are quite something, especially for the Reds. Liverpool registered 11 shots to their opponents’ only one, and they also forced Milan into seven clearances, in only 15 minutes. Notably, the Reds’ scored during this period too.
It came from a player that has proved so fruitful in the past with Mohamed Salah slipping the overlapping Trent Alexander-Arnold through, who fired a cross into the unfortunate Fikayo Tomori who deflected it in leaving Milan shot-stopper helpless, with the ball ending up nestling in the back of the net.
Klopp’s men should have been two to the good shortly after as well. Milan were penalized for a handball in the box following excellent work by the prolific and consistent Andrew Robertson, only for Salah to do something that he never normally does, missing a penalty kick. Salah was denied by Mike Maignan and so was Diogo Jota who pounced on the rebound.
At the time, this felt like a routine win for Liverpool. Milan had barely had a kick, let alone threatened Alisson’s goal. Surely it was only a matter of time until the Reds managed to bang the Rossoneri open and give them a humbling welcome back to European football’s top table with this being Milan’s first Champions League appearance since 2014.
Remarkably though, half an hour later, the half-time whistle was blown by Szymon Marciniak and Liverpool were trudging down the tunnel on the wrong end of the scoreline, trailing 2-1 to the visitors.
The two goals were scored in as many minutes between them by Ante Rebic and Brahim Diaz. For the first, Joel Matip was caught ball-watching while Liverpool’s midfield was guilty of some slack marking. For the second, Matip was unlucky, but Milan’s ability to slice through the Reds in transition was impressive and alarming to Klopp.
The turnaround was essential viewing for the neutral but Klopp would have watched on in dismay. This sort of thing could have been expected last season when the Reds had a lovable but shaky center-back pairing for most of the group stages – but now they are back to full strength, it drew uncomfortable parallels with the Liverpool of Klopp’s early years at the club, devastating in patches, yet seemingly unable to control games when it mattered.
In the end, they got the job done in front of their home fans, partly thanks to a piece of magic from Champions League moment of life man Divock Origi, who always comes to life when it matters in the Champions League, and he did that yesterday by teeing up Salah who converted to level the tie at 2-2, and partly thanks to Jordan Henderson who all over sudden produced a Steven Gerrard master class in the 2006 FA Cup final.
Being able to secure the three points deserves credit, but Klopp will be concerned about his side’s lack of ability to get the game won much earlier. Liverpool must rediscover their ability to control things if they are to make a serious claim for the Champions League this season, with a quick example in the match against Chelsea that played at Anfield towards the end of last month. After having a defender sent off in Reece James, everyone expected Chelsea to be on the back foot and Liverpool to get into an easy win, but that was not to happen. Klopp’s side failed to register even a single shot on target in the second half against 10-men Chelsea and surprisingly, Chelsea had a higher expected goal ratio (XG).
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