Monday 16 July 2018

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Liverpool show rare quality that will make them dangerous Champions League opponents for anyone

Liverpool's Sadio Mane
Liverpool's Sadio Mane

Mark Critchley

Walk along Walton Breck Road, which runs adjacent to English football’s most famous stand, and you will see five gold stars on the façade of Albie’s Kop Snack Bar. A little further along scarves are on sale that reference Rome, Paris and Istanbul, and across the road, a collection of miniature European Cups sit in silver paint above the Paisley Gateway.

Even when Liverpool could still boast the most league titles of any club in the country, success on the continent was this club’s greatest source of pride. The ability to not only compete but to beat the best in Europe is still valued above all else at Anfield. The supporters, the surroundings and the stadium, with its monolithic new Main Stand, are ready for Liverpool to return to that level. The question was whether their team is ready too.

Yes, there are clear weaknesses in this side that should be exposed by those at the very top of the European game. That Klopp should have to rely on an incredibly promising but inexperienced 18-year-old at right-back, with all the potential pitfalls showing faith in youth entails, is a reminder of this squad’s shallow depth. The deficits in the centre of defence and midfield should not be ignored either and then there is still the question of how successfully Philippe Coutinho can be integrated back into this squad. All this must be considered.

Yet this Liverpool side possesses a rare quality that will stand them in good stead no matter who they handed in Thursday’s Champions League group stage draw: the ability to blow other teams out the water. Hoffenheim conceded three goals in a game just twice last season, yet the compact, disciplined and organised Bundesliga outfit shipped three inside the first 21 minutes here; 21 minutes that could well prove to be hugely significant in Liverpool’s season.

This same clinical streak could be observed their last European campaign, during Klopp’s first season with the club on the run to the Europa League final. Just as on those nights against Manchester United, Borussia Dortmund and Villarreal, his players rose to occasion, appearing to understand the particular importance this club attaches to a mid-week evening of continental competition. Purpose was shown from the first whistle here, sometimes a little too much, but the effect it had helped to tear this tie away from Hoffenheim.

With the rapier-like Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah, whose first Anfield goal came either side of two Emre Can strikes, Liverpool will test even the most resolute of European defences. Both forwards were a constant threat on the shoulder of Hoffenheim’s beleaguered backline, central to a first-half display of attacking force that should make the rest of Europe sit up and take notice.

There were, however, repeated signs that Klopp’s players might, to paraphrase Bob Paisley, get “carried away with their own music”. That can be the danger when the Kop, under the lights, shouts a little louder than on a standard Saturday afternoon. The emotion and the tension of the occasion urges red shirts forward to leave them critically exposed at the back.

Such was the case in the moments leading up to and after Mark Uth’s reply for the visitors. Liverpool were desperate for a strong, composed voice in the middle of the park to immediately settle them. Jordan Henderson, despite his growth in the role of captain, is not yet that and after initially seeming to have sealed their progression, the hosts had a storm to weather.

Later, having restored their three-goal lead through Roberto Firmino and enjoyed a more assured second-half display, they allowed their guests back in again, with Sandro Wagner pulling one back. It was a goal born of the same complacency and tendency to ‘switch off’ that many at Anfield have complained about over the last few years; the same problems that could lost later in this competition.

Yet for Liverpool and Klopp, the important thing is that they are there. These qualifiers are often billed as season-defining matches, only then to be forgotten once successfully traversed. Liverpool’s last appearance at this stage of the competition is not well-remembered, despite the relief back in 2009 when Dirk Kuyt’s 118th-minute strike spared a penalty shoot-out against a Standard Liege side who deserved to progress.

The hope at the start of the evening, for all the talk about ‘famous European nights at Anfield’, was that this tie too would one day become a happy but faded memory, pushed into the shadows by victories of greater consequence. Thanks to those devastating first 21 minutes, Liverpool now have more famous nights to look forward to.

Independent News Service

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