Imagine a dragon, since we were playing Porto, that was completely blasé about all of its usual driving motivations. Yeah, it’d be fun to lay waste to that village, but the villagers all cower away from my cave, anyway. Sure, it’d be great to gorge myself on their entire herds of cattle and sheep, but as long as I can grab a couple, that’s usually enough. I mean, I could sleep on an even larger pile of gold, but how much more comfortable is it going to be? This is the situation we were presented with in today’s match, where the opposition (the villagers, the cattle, the owners of the gold) had everything to play for and the dragons, who happened to be us instead of Porto, didn’t. That is, if you exclude the almost-literal pile of gold which is the €2.9m we’d get for winning the game. But we were clearly the blasé dragons in the first half, when we must have turned the ball over more times than we have in any half of football we’ve played this season. Errant passes, losing duels, getting beat to second balls; we ran the gamut of sloppy play and allowed Porto to dictate the pace of the game to us for most of the half, barring a couple shouts at their end, both of which were on target, and one of which should’ve been another goal for Sadio Mané without a ludicrous intervention by VAR. (There is no advantage gained by having one’s armpit ahead of the defender! I thought UEFA had decided this was stupid with Bob’s denied goal for the same reason three seasons ago!) When you have a collection of players on the pitch who either don’t play that often or are trying to perform in order to keep playing, you don’t expect them to get outplayed by the opposition, on both a technical and emotional level. But then the answer to the problem might be in that assessment: this was a bunch of guys who not only don’t play that often, but certainly don’t play together that often.
With about 10 minutes left in the first half, the sleepy dragon had lifted it’s head and said: “You know something? I’m a dragon.” Suddenly, there’s teeth, fire, soul-wrenching eyes, all that rot. In reality, it looked like the game plan had been remembered and the back line, made up of only one regular starter and three backups, wasn’t getting overrun by enthusiastic blue shirts. And it’s not to say that the performance was resolutely awful. Thiago Alcãntara was man-of-the-match for a reason as his control and passes were largely unimpeachable. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain settled into another solid performance, to mirror his last two starts. Tyler Morton, while not spectacular, was dependable at the 6 and was the one who triggered Mo Salah’s goal in the second half. And Mo and Sadio were the same, constant threats throughout the game, which Porto worked hard to minimize, just as they have in our previous five encounters in the Champions League; none of them successfully. However, said dragon certainly wasn’t assisted by the crowd, which also lacked the usual intensity of Anfield. Again, with not much to play for, there wasn’t a whole lot to cheer for, either, but you’d expect that if play was as sloppy as the first half was, there’d be some reaction in the crowed to what was happening in front of them.
But this is a team and the team clearly responded to the situation, got moving, and began to play together. That’s what a real team does. In the end, we got the win and, thus, got our pile of gold and the actual dragons went away probably hoping to never draw us in the CL again. Group of death? Sure was. We buried’em. Now we just have to close things out at the San Siro to become the first English side to ever win all of their group games since the European Cup became the Champions League. That sounds like a proper legendary story.
Liverpool 2 – 0 Porto
I’m posting the diagram above for two reasons. 1. I can’t find an xG diagram for the match at the moment, although I’ve seen numbers that indicate it was something in the range of .75 for LFC and 1.03 for Porto, if that gives you any indication of how on the front foot the Portuguese club were in the first half and 2. The above diagram gives a good assessment for why we’ve won out in the “group of death” through five matches. The four clubs in the best spots in this analysis are the four best sides in Europe at the moment, with two of them even markedly ahead of their colleagues. Even with all of the midfield injuries we’ve had; even being 4 points back of Chelsea in the Premier League, we’re still one of the two best sides in Europe by most estimations and the above diagram just bears that out. Also, now that Captain Jordan Henderson, James Milner Robot Warrior, and Andy Robertson have all returned in fine form, we’re only waiting on Naby Keita (sigh…), Roberto Firmino, Curtis Jones, and Harvey Elliott and we’ll be back at full strength as we head into 13 games in the next 43 days. Meanwhile, someone else who recently returned from injury was in masterful form tonight:
Yeah, man. If he can just stay on the pitch consistently (It’s the Naby Keita song!), he can do a lot of damage and I’m not talking about his worldie of a strike. Thiago’s touch on the ball in the last two games has been even better than usual. He gives off the impression of being fully settled in at the club and ready to push things forward. And, well, yeah… That strike:
What else can you do, even if you’re a Porto fan, but laugh? Too good. It also triggered another Opta moment, as they pointed out that we’ve scored more goals from outside the box (5) than any other side in this year’s CL, with all five coming from different players (Hendo, Bob, Mo, Naby, and Thiago.) As noted, Ox did have some good moments, as well, especially one in the first half when he ran down an attack by Luis Diaz, who was Porto’s danger man throughout the match. He also made some really good pushes in the offensive third that were thisclose to creating real chances, like the old Ox. Again, I think the increased game time is really doing him some good. It was also a solid first appearance for this man at DM:
He made a couple nice turns and didn’t seem to be chasing the play, although there’s a marked difference between a 19-year-old and the assured presence of The Lighthouse (Fabinho) in the middle. But he kept his head up and, most importantly, kept the ball moving. That 1 chance created was a pinpoint long ball to Mo that set up the second goal:
Among the highlights after that excellent pass were a great give-and-go with Hendo (emphasizing again the captain’s touch in the offensive zone on that right side) and Mo sending Mateus Uribe for the paper as he stepped past him to bury it in the corner off that left foot. The greatest number of CL goals at Anfield for Liverpool is 14, scored by (Aston Villa manager) Steven Gerrard. Mo has now matched him and we have at least one more home match to go just this season. It’s also the joint-most by any Liverpool player in the group stage, matching Bob in 2017-18. It also meant 16 straight matches that Liverpool have scored 2 or more goals; the first time an English side have done that since 1939 (Wolverhampton.) The record is held by Sunderland at 17.
The biggest change, of course, was swapping out Trent Alexander-Arnold for Neco Williams while Kostas Tsimikas was still starting in place of Robbo. Contrary to many of his detractors, Neco did well:
Obviously, you’d want the passing number to be a little higher and we know that Neco’s not really a crosser, but those are the only really mild complaints that you might have. The dropoff from Trent is stark, but that doesn’t mean that Neco didn’t play well. It just means that he’s not Trent. Similarly, we were rock solid on the other side:
Hilariously, it’s not just the 8 wins when he’s started. It’s also the 8 clean sheets. We also know that Kostas can put the ball in the air, although it’s safe to say that his corners in this match were a little uneven. But, clearly, Kostas is a valuable member of this team. That’s the same team that shook itself out of its stupor in the first half, responded to how the match was flowing, and took control of it. You could hear the philosophy that Klopp has instilled in the post-game comments from Thiago and Ox, where they talked about meeting certain standards and working for the group as whole. That’s Liverpool. That’s what Arrigo Sacchi (if you’re not familiar, do yourself a favor and hit that link) was talking about a couple months back when he said: “This Liverpool team is a masterpiece. A fantastic team without any real superstars. A true team. You see 1 playing for 11, while other teams are 11 playing for themselves.” **cough ManU cough** I’d debate that we lack any true superstars, especially given how Mo is playing, but his point is salient: This is a team. A team that plays for Liverpool. And the match tonight is how a team responds.
Alrighty, then. Southampton (Liverpool Juniors) come to Anfield on Saturday. It’s the 10 AM game, so no excuses, hangover fiends. Then we travel to Milan for our first game at the San Siro since 2008 against Inter. Milan is, remarkably, still playing for something more than just saving face (Simeone face… plant…?), so it should be something like tonight. Dragons, yo.