Monday 19 February 2018

Reds slack in the USSR as 'fab four' fail to find winner

Spartak Moscow 1-1 Liverpool

Fernando curls the ball over the Liverpool wall to put Spartak Moscow in front. Photo: Reuters
Fernando curls the ball over the Liverpool wall to put Spartak Moscow in front. Photo: Reuters

Chris Bascombe

It was another evening in Europe promising more than it delivered for Jurgen Klopp.

He saw Liverpool dominate Spartak Moscow in the Russian capital, but what may yet prove a useful away point again left him craving more.

His side created enough chances to win, but paid for their only blemish at the back. In fact, it needed two 'keepers to keep Liverpool out. First Artem Rebrov and when he was injured his deputy Aleksandr Selikhov defied the visitors. Rarely, if ever, could Klopp have seen such a one-sided contest go with such paltry reward.

"Win or die," was the banner unfurled from the home fans prior to kick-off.

Their ovation at full-time proved that was a deception. They were thrilled and relieved to escape with a point. Klopp had said his answer to defensive vulnerabilities is to advance further forward. He was not bluffing.

In their 50 years of European travel, Liverpool could never have fielded such an attacking line-up. Whether the inclusion of so many creative players against Spartak is considered bold, reckless, naive or all three, it certainly deserved more.

Spartak Moscow's Artem Rebrov saves at the feet of Liverpool's Mohamed Salah. Photo: Reuters
Spartak Moscow's Artem Rebrov saves at the feet of Liverpool's Mohamed Salah. Photo: Reuters

Philippe Coutinho scored his second in two games, his road to redemption after summer tetchiness already paved with good intentions. But that cancelled out Aleksandr Samedov's free-kick, Liverpool again looking suspiciously towards their goalkeeper, Loris Karius.

Liverpool have had to wait eight years since last winning a group game in the Champions League outside Anfield. Four managers on from Rafa Benitez leading the club to victory over Hungarian side Debrecen, Klopp arrived in Moscow hoping to improve on a modest recent record in the competition.

Coming here they had won only two of their last 13 away games in all UEFA competitions, inclusive of Klopp's run to the Europa League final two years ago.

If such statistics might have prompted most manager to adopt a cautious approach, Klopp's line-up suggested otherwise.

Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp screams from the touchline. Photo: Reuters
Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp screams from the touchline. Photo: Reuters


He loaded his team with what has been labelled Liverpool's new 'Fab Four'.

The only problem with this nickname is none of Coutinho, Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah deserves to be regarded the Ringo of the group, although plenty were capable of being the star.

Spartak began in retreat, their five-man defence seeking to track Liverpool's runners and intercept the steady stream of one-twos the quartet was indulged. But the hosts had to thank Rebrov for keeping Firmino at bay, a superb save from the Brazilian's header on 17 minutes shortly following a less potent effort from Salah. The pressure was building, but after a rare foray towards Liverpool's goal Spartak scored.

Coutinho was adjudged to have fouled Samedov, and Fernando strode forward to hit the free-kick beyond Karius. At first glance it seemed the German goalkeeper was hesitant, regardless of how powerfully struck the set-piece.

It was the only shot on target for Spartak in the first half. One shot, one goal. That kind of consistency rate is alarmingly frequent for Liverpool's defence, albeit none of the back four were culpable here.

There was no cause for panic at that stage, only 23 minutes played, and the response was impressive. When Mane charged forward, the Spartak defenders' legs visibly wobbled. They could not stop the Senegal striker, and he combined with Coutinho to create the equaliser on 31 minutes. This was the kind of football which makes Klopp's time so exciting; quick and clinical.

When they get it right it is marvellous, and Coutinho's finish gave Rebrov no chance.

In the moments before half-time, further chances went astray, Klopp's initial enthusiastic applause for his side going close turning to howls of frustration. Salah, Firmino and Mane should have earned a half-time lead after well-crafted moves ended with limp finishes.

Spartak's strategy to defend looked like it was succeeding because of the scoreline, yet the balance of play was so much in Liverpool's favour it seemed only a matter of time before they would strike again.

Coutinho forced Rebrov into action with a free-kick on 53 minutes, the second half proceeding along a similar pattern. There was no prospect of Liverpool settling for a point. It is doubtful they are capable of such restraint. Salah should have reached another inviting Mane cross as the dominance and infuriation were twinned.

Rebrov, who had kept his side in the game, needed treatment to his right knee after colliding with the Egyptian winger. Given the Spartak 'keeper's contribution to the match, it was a potentially significant setback. A golf buggy was summoned to drive him off the pitch, and with his exit Liverpool's hopes of victory seemed elevated.

Klopp opted to replace Mane with Daniel Sturridge with just 20 minutes remaining, while Georginio Wijnaldum replaced Emre Can who had been booked.

Momentum was lost with the changes, the swiftness and purpose of movement surrendering to anxiety as full-time approached.

Trent Alexander-Arnold was inches wide with a powerful drive, but the visitors were looking a side that knew the game should have been won.

Firmino's blast over the bar after a defensive error summed up his and Liverpool's evening, and Sturridge also squandered two chances from close range.

The signal for eight minutes of injury time offered a final chance but there was no way through, even the reserve 'keeper defying Liverpool in the latter stages.

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