Milner spot-on as nervy Liverpool edge through
Liverpool 1 Augsburg 0
When Daniel Sturridge glided through the night air the fear was he might stop and signal to the bench that he could not carry on, his brittle muscles succumbing to the freeze. When captain Jordan Henderson fell clutching his knee, only the sound of a few moaning infants could be heard. When James Milner fired past Marwin Hitz so early on to score the opener, the reality of extra-time not being necessary dawned, and the relief across Anfield was tangible.
Everything just about worked out for Liverpool and Jurgen Klopp here. Progression in the Europa League was secured but not at by exerting more energy by playing an increased number of minutes ahead of Sunday's League Cup final with Manchester City. There were no injuries sustained too and for Klopp, he did not suffer the indignity of an exit to German opposition, struggling in the Bundesliga.
Hitz, a goalkeeper who was charged and fined by the German FA two months ago for sabotaging the ground near the penalty spot before a kick was missed in a game against Cologne, did require such skulduggery to enhance his display, for the performance of the Swiss was surely a career best, denying Liverpool a more comfortable victory.
Liverpool have now kept three clean sheets for the first time since the first three games of the season. Klopp's only change was to replace Kolo Toure with Lucas at centre-back and so, by selecting more or less the same side in three successive games, he has been able to breathe much coveted continuity and rhythm into Liverpool's play.
Klopp was happy. He goes to Wembley in an optimistic mood.
"The win was absolutely deserved and I think most people would agree with me," he said enthusiastically. "We should have scored more but that is how football is sometimes. With a 1-0, I am completely fine."
Klopp, indeed, was particularly satisfied that Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho made it through roughly 65 and 80 minutes respectively. "We need to find new faith and trust in the body of the players," he admitted. "They can only get their best shape through training and matches. Maybe we are nearly there."
The challenge for Liverpool was made complex by the fact this was the biggest game in Augsburg's history. In explaining what the prospect of a European fixture at Anfield meant to him, Markus Weinzierl, had been in danger of affording Liverpool too much respect. "Anyone who can walk has made the journey," he said - adding, "Christmas has come early," that it was an "All or nothing game," where, "We want to achieve the unthinkable."
Midfielder Tobias Werner seemed to have a more realistic grip on the task before him, talking positively about the quality of Liverpool's players but reminding of their human face, "Even they put their trousers on one leg at a time," he said.
Augsburg's success in recent seasons has been built upon a solid defence, a well-drilled midfield and an attack that makes a contribution but without using any amount of flair. Yet Augsburg were just the type of opponent Liverpool have struggled to break down and unlike last week, when their supporters gathered in front of the city hall at noon staring dolefully into their steins following a poor return to their domestic campaign after the winter break, they convened on Merseyside by marching confidently en masse from Derby Square, past Lime Street and up Scotland Road.
What Liverpool really did not want was extra-time ahead of a cup final. Having drawn the first leg 0-0, what Klopp wished for was the possibility of that happening being extinguished swiftly. Liverpool have not scored many early goals at Anfield since he became manager, so when French referee Clement Turpin spotted an indiscretion inside Augsburg's after only five minutes, Liverpool could relax a little.
Jordan Henderson's cross would have been headed away by Brazilian striker Caiuby had it not been for Dominik Kohr, the enthusiastic midfielder who on this occasion proved way too enthusiastic to make his presence felt. In flinging his hand in front of Caiuby, Liverpool were awarded a penalty and from there Milner - the reliable sort in these types of situations - passed Hitz without any fuss at all.
It frustrated Klopp that Liverpool did not secure progression by half-time. On chances, a 4-1 scoreline would not have been unfair.
Sturridge fed Coutinho, who fired into Hitz's feet; Coutinho then returned the favour for Sturridge but again, Hitz was there, making the save of the night. In between those opportunities, when Roberto Firmino reacted quickly to send Alberto Moreno's cross darting towards goal, Hitz reacted in a surprised manner but was nevertheless able to stop it going in.
The pattern continued. When Sturridge turned his marker, Christoph Janker shortly after the break it appeared Liverpool were finally going to be able to take it easy and yet, Sturridge's release was screwed. When Henderson raced onto Firmino's flick, Hitz was there one last time to deny him.
There was the usual charge by the trailing team when a lead is so slender. Weinzierl called for Raul Bobadilla, the oxen-thighed striker, as a substitute. That the closest they came to an equaliser was through two shots from a left-back in Kostas Stafylidis - one of them a free-kick - probably reflected Liverpool were not under as much pressure as it may have seemed. (© Independent News Service)