Red Star 2 - Liverpool 0
Red Star: Pavkov 22’, 29’
With every opportunity to cement their lead at the top of the Group C table available, Jürgen Klopp’s Reds put together one of their least fluid Champions League performances in over a year, falling to a combative Red Star side.
Xherdan Shaqiri left at home, Jürgen Klopp’s hands were largely tied in selecting his midfield trio for his side’s trip to Belgrade, leaving Georginio Wijnaldum, James Milner and Adam Lallana as the only real options. Roberto Firmino was rested from the start, and Daniel Sturridge was allowed another chance to impress alongside Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah. At the back, Joel Matip was a surprise inclusion in an otherwise settled backline.
In the broiling atmosphere of the Marakana, the home side came out aggressively, pushing their team up the pitch and battling their more illustrious opponents hard for every ball. They were nearly punished on eight minutes, as Mané seized an opportunity to break forward into space, but the Senegalese attacker’s chip was volleyed high and wide by Milner from 15 yards.
A minute later, Red Star fired a warning shot at the other end, as former Chelsea man Marko Marin cut inside from the left, but the German’s scuffed finish was easily collected by Alisson. The hosts were forcing the issue, turning the match into the sort of physical battle they preferred, and on fifteen minutes, captain Vujadin Savić hooked an effort over the crossbar as the ball fell to him following a corner.
Daniel Sturridge then missed a pair of chances, both created by Mané raids down the left, first hooking a volley over the bar from six yards out, before turning and shooting into the block with his weak leg when a first time effort with his left seemed the better option. The visitors were punished for their profligacy almost instantly, as Milan Pavkov rose to thunder home a header from six yards following a Marin corner.
The crowd were rocking and the Reds were not, and on the half hour, James Milner needlessly gave away the ball in midfield. Weak pressure from Wijnaldum paired with Matip’s failure to close down the ball carrier saw Pavkov walk the ball twenty yards before unleashing a hammer of a shot into the top corner, leaving Alisson stranded and Liverpool with a mountain to climb.
The visitors managed a short burst of energy before the half, as both Virgil van Dijk and Lallana saw goalbound headers blocked by defenders, before Daniel Sturridge displayed the best and worst of Daniel Sturridge, bringing the ball down beautifully and gliding past a defender, then hanging onto it for too long and slicing a right-footed effort well wide of the target from 20 yards.
The Englishman was subbed at the half in favour of Roberto Firmino, while Joe Gomez took to the pitch in place of Trent Alexander-Arnold, as Klopp attempted to be proactive in his search for a way back into the game. The switch to a back three did little to aid the German’s side, however, and despite acquiring the lion’s share of possession in the second half, sequences of fluid play were almost entirely absent.
A Firmino chip from the left side of the box lead to a blocked effort from Mané, and Andy Robertson saw his cross deflected onto the crossbar, but it would be 25 minutes into the second half before the Reds were able to properly turn up the pressure.
Mohamed Salah collected the ball at the edge of the box and unleashed a shot that Milan Borjan did well to parry for a corner, before the Egyptian pounced on a poor clearance on the ensuing set-piece, half-volleying a strike off the Serbian’s post. The hosts nearly managed to work a chance from a counter, before Salah was in the mix again, but the ball wouldn’t sit up right for the Egyptian, and his scuffed effort was blocked by a defender three yards out.
Divock Origi came on for Lallana with ten minutes to go, and Salah had another effort parried, this time from an impossible angle after Matip flicked a Gomez long throw past the far post. Van Dijk would head over the bar from a Firmino cross to the back post with five minutes to go, and, as injury time was running out, Salah mustered a final effort at goal, but Borjan claimed his fourth save of the match, sending the visitors home with nothing to show for their efforts.
Undoubtedly one of the Reds’ least inspiring performances in 2018, the defeat in Belgrade now puts Liverpool’s hopes of reaching the knockout stages in a precarious position, needing at least one win from their final two matches with Paris Saint-Germain and Napoli.
The lackluster showing was not entirely out of character for this season’s Liverpool, though, and Klopp’s men again looked off the pace for long stretches of the match, struggling to match their opponents’ intensity off the ball, while passing and interplay with any sort of precision or coherence seemed utterly beyond their capacities. The Reds produced a number of shots from good positions, and on another night could have scored a handful, but the lack of distinct and accurate play will be worrying the manager.
An Anfield visit from bottom dwellers Fulham is up at the weekend, and Klopp and his charges will look to bounce back with a proper trouncing to retrieve their confidence and keep pace with the superlative Manchester City at the top of the table.