The first time you hear Ice Cube’s voice on this track, he lets us know what it’s going to be like. Don’t, uh, play this one at the office, if that’s where you’re reading this. It’s not what you’d call the most considerate of Cube’s work, either. But, indeed, sometimes you do have to make it rough to make it work. This is Liverpool’s mantra with the group stage of the Champions League for the past three seasons, as all of them have come down to the final day and that final game has been a nailbiter the last two seasons, winning 1-0 over Napoli last year and 0-2 over Salzburg this year.
Despite that perception, it wasn’t what one would consider a “grindy” game at all. In fact, it was probably the fastest-paced game we’d played all year, since Salzburg had to win to go through and we had to not lose. We missed several obvious chances in the first half and, although Salzburg made some huge threats (no, not Haaland predicting a hat trick and a win (oops)), came out of it thinking we were still the much better team overall. In the space of 100 seconds in the second half, that superior quality came through. In both cases, you could probably lay a lot of the blame at the feet of Cican Stankovic, who had kept them in the game in the first half. First he charged Mané, who simply pitched the ball over him for Keita to put it in with a smart header (neck stiff and direct, head turning the ball into the goal) and then he charged Salah who went around him, got too close to the endline, and still somehow curled a shot into an empty net.
I mean… come on. Two sitters he couldn’t put away in the first half and then… that? Sometimes life just (ahem) curls your way.
The difference in this game from most of what we’ve encountered in the home league is that, instead of grinding and waiting for an opportunity, Salzburg handed us opportunities on a regular basis. The nature of the way they play under Jesse Marsch just isn’t one that’s going to adapt well to “secure football”, as it were. In the Austrian Bundesliga, they don’t win games by clinging to one goal leads. You look down the list of their matches this season and it’s like a list of executions: 6-0, 4-1, 7-2, etc. Prior to yesterday, they hadn’t failed to score in any game this season. [Licks finger. Elicits imaginary hissing noise from Liverpool defense boiler.] Just from watching them play, I feel pretty comfortable in asserting that they’ll be the Europa League favorites from this point forward and I can see Minamino getting snapped up by a bigger club just as fast as Haaland will be.
But it’s that ability to control games and then spring into attack with a single pass that makes Liverpool the evolved form of Jürgen Klopp’s heavy metal football and why we’re the favorites to win the PL and one of those to win the Champions League. That’s what being one of the best sides in Europe means.
No surprises. Tactically, it was about what you’d expect from the Reds these days. We started in the usual 4-3-3 with the exception being one member of the midfield: Naby Keita. Where you’d normally expect the trio of Hendo, Gini, and Milner to emphasize control against a team like Salzburg, Keita had such a great day against Bournemouth that I think Klopp decided to keep riding that horse. Good choice, as he turned in his second consecutive MOTM performance:
Part of his achieving that was the routine switch from the 4-3-3 to the 4-1-4-1 at halftime. Keita excels in that more traditional #10 role and Salah still scares the bejesus out of any team with sanity when he’s doing that single-man-stretching-the-defense-down-the-middle thing. Salzburg’s back line seemed even less stable than before in the second half and LFC made them suffer for it.
That said, I have to point out VVD’s excellence in this game. Yes, I know we’re all used to it, but he was really amazing against their frankly terrifying front line. Marsch pointed out in his post-game interview that the first two significant plays of the game were breaks by Salzburg that Virg ran down and neutered, when Marsch didn’t think he could possibly catch up. It’s remarkable, given how often Virg does that, that opposing teams are still surprised when it happens.
Likewise, another player who can’t be ignored is the captain. Since Fabinho has been out, Henderson has had to resume his role at the 6 and has done an excellent job. He’s usually been swapping with Wijnaldum in terms of protecting the back line, but while he’s been doing that, he’s still enabling Trent to get forward. I think he’s playing some of the best football of his career right now and it shouldn’t go unnoticed when we’ve lost the best CM in the world to injury and we haven’t missed a beat.
Knockout rounds. Of the non-group winning teams currently qualified, we can’t play Spurs, Chelsea, or Napoli (no domestic rivals and no teams from our group.) That leaves Real Madrid, Dortmund, Lyon, Atleti/Leverkusen, or Zagreb/Shakhtar/Atalanta. At time of writing, Shakhtar is 1-0 up on City in their final game, probably because City is fielding the (LOL) ‘B’ team of Bernardo Silva, Gabriel Jesus, Rodri, Gundogan, Foden, and some collection of multi-million pound defenders. Oh, and Bravo between the sticks. That’s the “backup” side that Pep says can’t compete with the top teams in Europe. I mean, well, maybe not with Liverpool, but…
Next should be a lot more rotation, as the bottom side in the EPL arrives at Anfield for Nigel Pearson’s first game as manager. Welcome back! I’ll also be on vacation, so any kind of game writeup might have to wait for a while.