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Liverpool 4, Hoffenheim 2 (6-3 aggregate): Winning on Their Own Terms

Liverpool book their ticket to the Champions League proper with a very Liverpool performance.

Liverpool FC v 1899 Hoffenheim - UEFA Champions League Qualifying Play-Offs Round: Second Leg
Photo by Mark Robinson/Getty Images

Liverpool 4 Can 11’, 21’, Salah 18’, Firmino 63’
Hoffenheim 2 Uth 29’, Wagner 79’

A vintage first half display saw the Reds run up what turned out to be an insurmountable lead and comfortably qualify for the Champions League group stage.

Jürgen Klopp sent out the exact same side that picked up a 2-1 win in the away leg, and typical of the German manager, there was no taking the foot off the gas despite the aggregate lead. Within five minutes of the opening whistle, the strategy had nearly paid off, twice.

First, Trent Alexander-Arnold — who notched the opening goal from a set piece in the first match — saw a free-kick deflected onto the head of Mohamed Salah, but the Egyptian attacker was unable to direct his effort on target. Immediately after, Roberto Firmino spun and slid a perfect through ball into the path of Sadio Mané, but the Senegalese forward was unable to lift his shot over the leg of Oliver Baumann.

Hoffenheim manager Julian Nagelsmann had spoken ahead of the match of his side refusing to be overawed by the prospect of competing with Liverpool at Anfield, and the Germans played like it, flowing forward in attack and routinely leaving their backline three-on-three with the Reds’ frontline. They nearly collected their prize six minutes in, when Serge Gnabry slipped in behind an untidy home defense, but the former Arsenal man put his effort wide of the mark.

The visitors’ attacking mentality was always going to be a perilous gambit, and it proved to be ten minutes into the frame. Roberto Firmino again spun away from his marker, and, taking advantage of the space and angles provided by Hoffenheim’s three-man backline, slid another ball in for Mané. The former Southampton man cut inside his defender rather than try and outrun him, before playing a gorgeous back heel to Emre Can, who placed a deflected effort past Baumann and into the near corner.

Not long after, Firmino again dictated the attack, as he beat his man coming in from the left side, and picked out Georginio Wijnaldum 12 yards out. The Dutchman’s effort clattered back off the post, but Mohamed Salah was on hand to tuck away the rebound, and Liverpool were 4-1 up on aggregate.

The back-and-fort nature of the game continued, and only a minute after Alexander-Arnold had intervened on another dangerous Gnabry run, the Reds notched their third of the night. A beautiful, flowing counter-attack saw Wijnaldum pick out Mané’s run with a first-time, 40-yard pass, another back-heel released Firmino into the box, and the Brazilian floated a perfect chip to the back post for Emre Can to smack home. It was delightful football, and Klopp made sure to tell the fans as much during the celebrations.

No Liverpool match is complete without some misgivings about the team’s defensive talents, of course, and Dejan Lovren made sure this would be no exception, first allowing Gnabry to receive the ball — and miss — alone with Mignolet by ignoring all pretense of an offside trap, then through a dreadful giveaway immediately in front of his own box. Mark Uth — having come on in the 25th minute — obliged and buried a shot into Simon Mignolet’s far corner from a narrow angle.

Incredibly, only 35 minutes had passed when Firmino missed a sitter from six yards out, seeing his first-time effort parried by Baumann at the near post, and still there was time for a chance at both ends, first as Joël Matip cleaned up Alexander-Arnold’s mess as the fullback had allowed Gnabry to get free in the box, then Emre Can missed his hat-trick by inches, having to watch his curled effort sneak just past the far post.

The second half began exactly as the first had — with the Reds threatening to run up the score. First a five on three counter attack broke down as Mané took one too many touches, then Salah was caught narrowly offside with fifty yards of space in front of him after Firmino had nicked the ball of a Hoffenheim defender.

The Reds kept up the pressure, looking for the goal to seal their advancement, and created a flurry of chances before the hour mark. Salah and Wijnaldum’s terrific interplay saw the Dutchman’s effort deflected over by Baumann, before Mané stung the hands of the visiting goalkeeper from a narrow angle. Alexander-Arnold continued to be more impressive in the opposition’s half than in his own, winning the ball high up the pitch and playing in Wijnaldum, but again Baumann was equal to the shot.

Hoffenheim could not hold on forever, though, and the final nail in the coffin arrived on 63 minutes. Captain Jordan Henderson broke from his deep position to chase a loose ball to the last defender, and won the battle of resolve with his counterpart, picking the ball off Kevin Vogt. Unremarkably, Roberto Firmino had worked his way forward, and was on hand to dispatch the pass from his captain into the back of the net.

The game slowed down noticeably from there, but with the visitors not quite giving up, and the Reds not quite locking it down, there remained a certain tension in the air. Some characteristic Alberto Moreno shenanigans ended with Kerem Demirbay pelting Mignolet with a strike from 20 yards, before substitute Joe Gomez completely sold out on a challenge out wide, allowing Andrej Kramarić time and space to pick out Wagner in the box, who easily headed home from eight yards.

There was no late comeback, nor much of an indication there would be, and the hosts could ride out the final minutes relatively comfortably.

Liverpool are back in Europe’s premier club competition, where fans will claim they belong. That they got there playing the kind of offensively scintillating and defensively hazardous football their manager delights in is entirely appropriate, if not necessarily all that promising regarding their final position in the contest.

Nonetheless, they are back, and they are sporting one of Europe’s most devastating-looking frontlines, as Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané continue to establish themselves as genuine world-class players in their respective roles.

The Reds will learn their opposition in the upcoming campaign on Thursday, before Arsenal visit Anfield on Sunday. Big week on Merseyside.

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