Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Liverpool 5-2 Roma: Post-Match Thoughts

Rome wasn’t built in a day, but it looks to have fallen in the space of ninety minutes. Eusebio Di Francesco had marshalled his men through to this point, conquering the likes of Barcelona along the way, but venturing to the fields of Anfield Road was a stretch too far for the Italians. One of the greatest performances ever witnessed in a European semi-final saw Roma put to the sword; a rampant Liverpool smashed five past them, and in truth could have had many more. A late rally from the vanquished side saw them steal two away goals, but Klopp can now march on Rome with a three-goal lead. 

It says something about the new standards that the German has instilled that many fans came away from the match with at least a hint of frustration. The very notion that a performance in which five goals are scored in a Champions League semi-final is somehow not good enough is a bizarre one, and yet that was the feeling amongst some – the two late goals were sloppy ones to concede, and introduced at least a tiny hint of doubt into Liverpool minds. However, to dwell on this would be absurdly negative. Five goals. In a semi-final. The magnitude of the achievement is hard to take in. The Anfield side have very much announced their return to the top level of the game, and they are making opponents at that level look amateur. Such are the usually fine margins at this rarefied peak of the sport, fifteen of the last seventeen home first-leg winners have gone on to win the tie – a home win is often the slight advantage that can settle things, and Liverpool have produced a home demolition. A Champions League final is in touching distance: this is not a time for negativity, this is the most exciting time to be a Liverpool fan in at least a decade.

Not least amongst the reasons for this excitement is a certain Mo Salah. The Egyptian once again produced a display of the highest quality, tormenting his former club with his pace, trickery and finishing. Oh, the finishing. The first was a masterpiece of both power and precision, rifling a strike into the very top corner after he had been allowed to cut inside from the right. Alisson, arguably Roma’s best player this season, was left helpless as the ball flew past him: this was a feeling he would be getting used to for the rest of the night. The second goal, in its own way, was just as good: Salah timed his run to perfection before delicately lifting the ball over the onrushing Brazilian stopper. Anfield held its breath as it looped up – would it drop in? The colossal roar that followed provided the answer. 

This is far from a one-man team, however: both of the other members of the front three would hit the net before the night was done. It was Sadio Mane who made it three, sending the Liverpool fans into total raptures – he had missed some big opportunities in the first half, but was in the right place to turn home a cross from close range. Firmino, who had registered the assist for both of the Salah goals, then set about getting on the scoresheet himself. His first was almost a carbon copy of Mane’s goal. He showed the awareness to pick up a good position, and reaped his reward with an easy finish. His second, to bring the team’s goal tally up to a staggering five, was a simple header from a Milner corner; Roma looked broken, and could not even master the basics at this point. Incidentally, the assist makes Milner the all-time leading assister for a single Champions League season: this fittingly marks his remarkable renaissance. The injury to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, so devastating on a personal level for a player just beginning to hit the form of his career, makes it all the more important that Milner can keep up these high standards.

Of course, the game ended on something of a sour note. Lovren, who had been integral to repelling Roma’s early onslaught in the first half, was caught out – a relatively simple ball over the top towards Dzeko was misjudged, and the Bosnian had time to take it down and finish past Karius at the near post. Then came the penalty: Milner was perhaps na├»ve to have his arm out as he moved to block the ball, but it is nonetheless a harsh interpretation to call it a deliberate handball. In any case, Perotti converted the penalty coolly to give Roma at least a semblance of hope. However, in any other circumstances, would Roma’s chances even be under genuine discussion having lost the first leg by three goals? The combination of the timing of their two goals and their success in overturning a margin of the same size against Barcelona in the last round have made people underplay the enormity of Liverpool’s achievement. There is an almost an attitude that it is ‘only’ three goals, and that somehow Klopp’s men are still very vulnerable going into the second leg. Anything could happen, that goes without saying, but whether the lead is three or five it would take a disaster to throw it away in Rome. The Anfield side are undoubtedly in the ascendency, and firmly so – for this, every single player on the pitch deserves immense credit.

- @JamesMartin013

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Resilient Reds March on in Europe

The ever-more familiar chorus reverberated from the away end at The Etihad after the final whistle: Allez, Allez, Allez. It was a victory cry – Liverpool had pulled off a remarkable feat, not only winning the tie against Manchester City but triumphing in both legs. The song sings of historic successes, from Paris down to Turkey; progression to the semi-final of this year’s competition allows fans to begin to believe in earnest that Kyiv can be added to that list.

It was the kind of game that lays bare the raw emotion of football. The first half was a true ordeal – the early goal was essentially a playing-out of the worst nightmares of the fans, and the persistent barrage that followed induced horrific amounts of stress. It was almost unwatchable, and yet no pair of Liverpool eyes could be torn away from the action. It was a minor miracle that half-time was reached with the score only 1-0. The defence must take some credit – admittedly they should never have dropped so deep, but City effectively forced them to do so, and having retreated they defended like heroes. Lovren, much-maligned in his career at the club, was prepared to throw his body on the line time and time again. His desperate leap, just flicking the ball with the slightest of touches, may well have been responsible for diverting Bernardo Silva’s shot onto the woodwork. Van Dijk rallied magnificently after being at fault for the opener, marshalling the back line and clearing multiple aerial balls to safety. Robertson rode his luck against Sterling, and was fortunate not to concede a penalty, but ultimately managed to keep him fairly contained. Alexander-Arnold seemed to be walking a tightrope after a concerningly early yellow card up against Sane, but proceeded to put in yet another unbelievably mature display to keep the German largely under wraps. It is only fair to say that Sane should have added City’s second – the ball fell to him after a Karius punch ricocheted off Milner, and the linesman’s flag should not have gone up. However, nobody wins a major trophy without getting a slice of fortune along the way. This was Liverpool’s, but they knew they would have to regroup for the second half if they were to make the most of this gift.

Another half in the same vein as the first would simply not have been sustainable. This is no criticism of Liverpool’s back line, but when a collection of the world’s best attacking talent crash upon a defence in wave after wave it cannot be expected to hold out indefinitely. The players knew this, and Klopp undoubtedly reinforced the point at half time. It had an effect: the visitors emerged with more purpose, bravely stepping up where in the first half they would not have done so. This did leave slightly more space for City, which was occasionally alarming, but the net effect was definitely positive. Key to this was the relentless Roberto Firmino. He had been one of the stand-outs in the first half, seemingly the only player capable of showing the technique and composure to beat the City press before releasing a runner to temporarily relieve pressure; in the second period he was aided by his teammates showing more eagerness to step up with him, and the team reaped the rewards. The Brazilian produced a trademark charge back to within his own half to retrieve the ball from an advancing Kevin De Bruyne – it was the ensuing move that sent Liverpool fans everywhere into raptures.

The ball made its way to Gini Wijnaldum, who had begun to see a little more of it in the second half. He coolly drifted away from his man, and found Oxlade-Chamberlain. He drove forwards, before producing a lovely outside-of-the-boot pass to pick out Mohamed Salah. Salah fed Mane, who ran into a rapidly-closing gap between Laporte and Fernandinho. Between the pair of them, and the subsequent lunge from Ederson, there was surely a foul on the winger: roars of outrage undoubtedly emanated from the households of all Liverpool fans. These turned to guttural screams of delight, or perhaps more accurately of relief, as Salah picked up the loose ball and produced a sublime chip to score. There are no words to do justice to the release of tension felt in that moment – suddenly City needed four more goals, and although it was not over it was clear that more of the same from Liverpool would be enough to see them into the semi-final.

In the end, they added to their aggregate lead. City were rattled, once again showing the intangible benefits of a club with a history of producing the impossible at the vital moments – they had no European experiences from which to draw hope, while Liverpool played like men who knew that they were merely following those who had gone before them by brushing aside all those standing between them and European glory. It was Otamendi who made the crucial error: Liverpool’s press reduced him to his former error-prone self over the two legs, and on this occasion it was Firmino who robbed him. He then calmly ghosted into a scoring position, before curling it beyond Ederson and in for the goal he so richly deserved. At this point, the celebrations could truly begin.

Focus now inevitably turns to the semi-finals. The draw is made on Friday, and in a shock turnaround will feature Roma. They produced an astounding comeback of the kind City could not muster – this shows that they will not make life easy for any potential opponents, but they surely have to be the preferred team to come up against. That said, Liverpool will not be overawed by any opponent: they did a job on one of Europe’s best, triumphing 5-1 on aggregate. Roared on by fans in delirium at the prospect of more European glory, absolutely anything is possible for this great group of players. Allez, Allez, Allez.

-          Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Thursday, 5 April 2018

Liverpool 3-0 Manchester City: Reds Deliver Under the Lights

There are nights when everything just comes together for a football team. Each of the players knows their role and executes it perfectly, spurred on by a crowd in full voice, against an opposition cowed by the perfect storm of the hostile atmosphere and the class of what they have found themselves up against. This was one of those nights. Liverpool is synonymous with European nights, and City felt the full force of that pedigree as they were simply blown away by one of the all-time great performances in the Champions League.

It is hard to know where to start in analysing the win, as every single player in a red shirt did all that could be expected of them and more. However, even amongst this sea of quality, Trent Alexander-Arnold deserves to be singled out for praise. He was recently made to endure torrid times against both Anthony Martial and Wilfried Zaha; prior to the game, many were worried about how he would fare against Leroy Sane, a front-runner for the Young Player of the Year award and an undeniably mercurial talent. Not only did he cope, he completely pocketed the German – it was plain that Guardiola had sent his men out to target Alexander-Arnold’s flank, but the local boy ensured that this decision would be one the manager came to regret. Any full-back who put in such a performance would have had praise heaped on them: for it to be a 19 year-old, in the context of a relatively rough patch of form that brought his performance on this biggest of stages under significant scrutiny, is nothing short of remarkable. It is testament to his character as well as his ability, and it reinforced the point that he has the attributes to make that spot his own for many years to come. 

It would be remiss to praise the full-back without also giving credit to both Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Gini Wijnaldum. In the first half, it was the former Arsenal man who was tasked with doubling up on Sane to ensure that he could get no joy. His discipline was relentless, and when Trent was covering the winger Oxlade-Chamberlain was never far away. The first ten minutes in particular highlighted his immense versatility – City dominated possession in the early stages, and the summer acquisition essentially sat in as a right wing-back directly in front of the conventional full-back to ensure there would be no overload down the flank. Once the crowd had roared Liverpool into the ascendency, unperturbed by City’s attempts to calm things down, Chamberlain showed just what he had to offer going the other way: after the industry of Firmino and the composure of Salah had made the first goal, he positively rifled in the second from long range. It was a sumptuous strike, leaving Ederson helpless: everything about his performance was deserving of such a goal. Wijnaldum took over the role for the bulk of the second half, following Salah’s precautionary withdrawal. Few players have the diverse skill set that makes Oxlade-Chamberlain so useful, so it was far from a given that the Dutchman would be able to step up and ensure Alexander-Arnold remained well-protected while still offering something going forward. However, he performed the task equally well. At times this season he has looked lost on the pitch, floating around without seeming to know his purpose – on the night he was machine-like, carrying out his instructions methodically and perfectly. Sane did not get any more joy after the introduction of Wijnaldum, and when Liverpool did manage to recover the ball he was instrumental in surging out of the defensive third and relieving pressure. It is refreshing to know that Liverpool have a degree of depth in the squad that allows such tidy players to be called upon when needed.

The final player worth singling out for special praise is the scorer of Liverpool’s third goal, Sadio Mane. The goal itself was impressive: an inch-perfect floated cross from Salah was met emphatically by the Senegalese winger, who powered a textbook header past Ederson. However, it was the overall performance that was most admirable. His touch, the one thing that has looked consistently less than its best for him this season, was largely faultless. His runs were direct and positive, the best of which left Otamendi on the floor. His decision-making was spot on, never running down blind alleys or ignoring passing options. A Mane in this sort of form is just as unplayable as his Egyptian counterpart on the other side – certainly City were not equipped to handle either of them.

Ultimately, though, not one player let the side down. Every last man put in one of the performances of their lives, and those that think the atmosphere had no part to play just don’t grasp football. James Milner took a video of the coach’s arrival, from inside the team bus itself: pulling in through streets lined with fans wielding banners and flairs, singing the praises of the Liverpool players on that bus, could hardly fail to inspire them. Equally, City cannot have enjoyed the wall of jeers that first met them on Anfield Road and continued throughout the ninety minutes inside the stadium. It was intimidating, the kind of support City could only dream of conjuring up, the kind of support that only really comes with true European pedigree. Nobody would deny that football is about fine margins, so if the crowd can give their players that extra level while even just slightly overawing the opposition then it is of course capable of making all the difference. This is what was witnessed at Anfield.

It would be easy to forget just how good a side Manchester City have proved themselves to be this season. This very weekend they will have the opportunity to formally wrap up the league title with more than a month to spare, and only one club – you guessed it – have been able to beat them in the league all season. The case can be made that they are the best technical side in Europe: indeed, many were making that case before their drubbing at the hands of Klopp’s men. If they can be dismantled in this way, so can any of the teams left in the competition: Liverpool will go to the Etihad not only confident that they can see the tie out, but that they have the potential to go all the way. Of course, the hardest work is yet to come, but when he came to the helm Klopp called for fans to be believers rather than doubters: that is an easy call to answer after a night like this.

- James Martin (@JamesMartin013)

Monday, 2 April 2018

Looking Back at Palace, Looking Forward to City

Jurgen Klopp described the victory over Crystal Palace as a “dirty win”. It was certainly a gritty performance – a lacklustre first-half display required a big response in the second half, and the players duly came out with enough determination and persistence to finally grab a winner in the closing stages. There have been more convincing wins over the course of the season, but in many ways this one was the biggest indicator of how far the team has come under Klopp’s tenure: Liverpool have always had a big scoreline in them, but in the recent past have often struggled to show an ability to drag themselves back from behind against the ‘lesser’ teams. That said, it will need to be the ‘other’ Liverpool who report for duty on Wednesday night: Manchester City are anything but a lesser team, and it will take pure firepower to blow them away.

The trip to Selhurst Park was never going to be an easy game for Liverpool. Not only have Palace become something of a bogey team in recent times, 12:30 kick-offs have also proved difficult for the current crop of players. Perhaps it is something to do with the high-intensity tactics that Klopp demands – regardless, there were plenty of reasons to fear that the three points would not be straightforward. So it proved: the early kick-off was actually beneficial in that it gives the team slightly more rest prior to the massive match against City, but sure enough it seemed to take the team a while to get going. Alexander-Arnold is still a teenager – it showed that he might rather still be in bed, as he was repeatedly skinned by Wilfried Zaha in the early stages. It was this that led to the goal. A Benteke flick-on was not anticipated by the promising youngster, and Zaha nipped round him and reached the ball before an onrushing Karius could get there. A penalty was correctly awarded, and Milivojevic slotted it away with characteristic coolness. Liverpool could have had a penalty of their own moments later, after Sadio Mane flung himself down following contact in the box, but in general chances were hard to come by in the first period.

Fortunately, the second half saw a highly pleasing response. Liverpool were level inside ten minutes, the much-maligned Mane finally getting some luck as he poked home at the near post to make it 1-1. Palace came on strongly after this, but Klopp’s men weathered the storm – Karius should take credit for an important save, and it must be said that the referee deserves some thanks for bizarrely failing to show Mane a second yellow card for a handball. Perhaps wisely, the Senegalese winger was withdrawn shortly afterwards – his replacement, Oxlade-Chamberlain, had a very positive impact. He was notionally a straight swap for Mane, but it was clear that he enjoys a more central role; he drifted inside regularly, and his driving runs from there caused the Palace defence a headache. Another change, this one enforced, was also key: Lallana’s terrible luck with injuries continued, but Klopp responded with a masterstroke by replacing him with Lovren and switching to three at the back. The full-backs, freed from their defensive shackles, were given a new lease of life – both of their Palace counterparts were terrorised, as Alexander-Arnold in particular put in a series of teasing crosses. In the end, though, it was Robertson who made the telling ball. He found Mo Salah in the middle, who showed his typically unerring composure to sit down Mamadou Sakho and slot it past the keeper for the winner. His debut season has got to the point where it defies description. His latest record at least does some sort of justice to the impact he has had: Salah has now scored in the joint-most league games in a single season, with six matches still left to play.

The focus now shifts to midweek, where everyone will be hoping that Salah can reproduce his mercurial form on the European stage. Indeed, everyone will have to be at their best in order to overcome Guardiola’s Manchester City: a strong case can be made that they are the best team in Europe right now, and nothing short of two perfect games is likely to be good enough over the course of the tie. Still, the players can take encouragement from the fact that they know they are capable of beating City – Pep will not simply discard his philosophy in order to try and handle Klopp’s lethal front three, and in any case he does not have a defence capable of containing them, so there are bound to be gaps left in behind as a result of City’s expansive style. The Anfield advantage could also play a part in the first leg. Guardiola admitted last time out that his players got caught up in it: any advantage Liverpool can get is welcome, and the stadium is bound to be buzzing for the first European quarter-final in nearly a decade. It is vital that the team leave Anfield either level or ahead – ideally City would be prevented from notching up too many away goals, but in a tie that is likely to turn into a frenzied shootout this should not be a factor that serves to inhibit Liverpool’s play.

In many ways, this should be a more enjoyable game than the Palace match. The opposition is both much better overall and defensively less compact – this means that we are better equipped to play against them, but also go in with much less expectation. There will of course be some level of stress: the tantalising prospect of a semi-final in the greatest competition in club football awaits the winners of the tie, so the yearning for a win is intense. However, ultimately, victory or defeat in this matchup will not tell us too much about the overall continued progression of the club: City’s state-funded project effectively lives or dies by rapid success on the biggest stages, whereas Liverpool’s sustainable project remains on track regardless of what happens. Trophies are coming, and hopefully coming soon – whatever the result in this huge tie, that will not change. All that said, victory would be a huge moment not only in the club’s season but in its history: this could prove to be a turning point in our long journey back to the very top.
-          @JamesMartin013