Europe remains Liverpool’s sanctuary. Unrecognisable in their defence of the Premier League title, there was something strikingly familiar about Liverpool on the Champions League stage as Fabinho commanded central midfield, Mohamed Salah proved decisive and a beaming smile returned to Jürgen Klopp’s face. RB Leipzig, the second-best team in Germany, were brushed aside en route to the quarter-finals.
Time, and home form at Anfield rather than the Puskas Arena in Budapest, will tell whether this was the night the Premier League champions rediscovered the self-belief and spark they have mislaid this season. Their confidence unmistakably increased during an assured display against Julian Nagelsmann’s side, however, and Liverpool appeared liberated from the troubles of home once Salah and Sadio Mané delivered a repeat of the first leg with two second-half goals in quick succession. The “hosts” enjoyed themselves once again.
The only criticism of Liverpool’s performance was their profligacy in front of goal. The tie should have been settled before half-time, although there was never any prospect of a poor Leipzig team conjuring a recovery. Nat Phillips and Ozan Kabak dismissed any concern over their lack of Champions League experience, or understanding as a fledgling partnership, with authoritative contributions in central defence. Fabinho, finally able to return to central midfield for the first time since October, brought long-awaited protection, intelligence and balance in his favoured role. Thiago Alcântara improved alongside him as a result.
Both goals stemmed from fine team moves. Salah opened the scoring after a flowing passage of play involving Diogo Jota, Thiago, Mané and Jota once again. Receiving the striker’s pass, Salah stepped inside the cumbersome Dayot Upamecano before sending a trademark left-foot finish inside Peter Gulacsi’s near post. Four minutes later Mané pounced on an inviting cross from substitute Divock Origi and the aggregate score gave a fair reflection of Liverpool’s superiority.
The contest bore many similarities to the first leg and not only in respect of the scoreline or the scorers. Leipzig invited problems by attempting to play through Liverpool’s press with defenders who consistently struggled to do so. Nagelsmann persisted with the same ineffective shape, unforced errors piling up for Leipzig while Liverpool displayed a level of control and creativity that has eluded them in the league this year. Only poor decision-making and finishing allowed Leipzig to still have hope at half-time.
Thiago was far more influential with Fabinho providing protection and could have opened the scoring from Liverpool’s first attack. Played through the middle by Georginio Wijnaldum, his captain for the night, the midfielder attempted to release Salah inside the area when he had a clear sight of goal. Kevin Kampl intercepted Thiago’s pass and the tone for a wasteful first half was set.
Mané volleyed over from a tight angle after another incisive ball from Wijnaldum. Jota, starting in place of the injured Roberto Firmino, sent a powerful header goalwards from a Trent Alexander-Arnold corner but Gulacsi, the former Liverpool reserve goalkeeper, tipped over superbly. Gulacsi saved again when Thiago sent Salah racing through, with an acrobatic clearance from a Leipzig free-kick. The Egypt international’s low shot was pushed away by the keeper to Mané, who made a mess of an attempted header from the rebound when he looked certain to score.
Alexander-Arnold, like Thiago before him, then elected to pass instead of shoot when released inside the area by Mané. His attempted cut-back to Salah was intercepted by Upamecano. Jota sent another shot straight at Gulacsi before squandering a glorious chance when Upamecano inadvertently rolled the ball into his path while clearing from Salah. Jota, from six yards out, struck the side-netting.
Leipzig chances, by contrast, were few and far between. They showed little inclination to exploit the high defensive line that has brought Liverpool’s domestic opponents such success and had little idea of how to break through a strong, concentrated back-line. Dani Olmo had an early sight of Alisson’s goal when Yussuf Poulsen laid off Christopher Nkunku’s pass to the midfielder. Alisson saved at full stretch and, aside from watching Emil Forsberg drag a shot wide, enjoyed the rest of the first half as a spectator.
Nagelsmann recognised the need for change and introduced Alexander Sørloth at the break, plus fellow strikers Justin Kluivert and Hwang Hee-chan on the hour. There was an immediate but short-lived improvement, with Sørloth heading against the bar and Olmo shooting over from distance seconds later. The Leipzig manager was visibly encouraged on the sidelines but his optimism was soon extinguished. Salah and Mané finally discovered the clinical touch Liverpool had been missing and domestic troubles were forgotten as Klopp’s team eased into the last eight. The light in Liverpool’s season has not gone out yet.
Source: The Guardian