As was the case last spring, Liverpool were unable to overcome a Spanish deficit at Anfield, failing to convert their chances after an uninspired first leg, and are prematurely eliminated from the Champions League.
Below, we find some positives in it all nonetheless, and try to figure out what could be done to make this season tolerable.
Trent: Gallons of ink have been spent opining about the mind state of Trent Alexander-Arnold over the past weeks. We have little interest in re-litigating all that, but suffice to say, the 22-year old was phenomenal tonight.
Largely eliminating the threat of Vinícius, who made only a single successful touch in the Liverpool box all night, Trent put in two tackles and three interceptions, while generating a full 40 percent of the Reds’ chances, creating six shot assists over the 90 minutes.
His role has changed a lot as this chaotic season has progressed, drifting into the centre far more often than was the case in the past, and teams spend a lot more time limiting his ability to influence the game in the final third, but if we’ve learned anything about the young scouser, it is that he’s ready for any challenge that comes his way, and we would be shocked if he didn’t maneuver his way around this one too.
Bolton Baresi: The nickname jokingly awarded to Nat Phillips by Jamie Carragher a few weeks back may have been tongue in cheek — few would describe the 23-year old as ‘cultured’ in his playing style — and the circumstances that have led to him even having the chance to put on these performances are anything but favourable, Phillips has been much better than anybody had any right to expect.
He’s not fast enough to play in Liverpool’s demanding defensive system, but the old-school foot-forward style of defending has proven good enough to not be a disaster despite those shortcomings, and tonight, he was immense.
Winning the usual seven aerial duels, Phillips also delivered four interceptions and two clearances, as well as stepping up his playmaking duties, striding forward and delivering aggressive passes through the lines, looking for Liverpool attackers in the final third.
He certainly won’t be a starter whenever things return to normal, and the expectation remains that the Reds will be upgrading at centre-back in the summer, but Big Nat may have done enough to earn himself a spot as fourth or fifth choice at Anfield next year, or, at the very least, a starting position at a Premier League club whose list of demands for a centre-back lines up better with his attributes.
Giving It A Go: For as frustrating as the missed chances and end result is, Jürgen Klopp’s men largely did what they were supposed to do on the night, creating more than enough chances to get a goal or two, the kind of goal that would sow seeds of doubt in the minds of their visitors, and simply could not capitalise.
It fell apart in the end, as fatigue forced substitutes and rhythm suffered as a result, but the intensity and application was there for all to see, and if nothing else, hopefully the players take away from the game that performances like that will more often than not result in them leaving the stadium with a win.
Merseyside Shooting Boots: Despite their injury troubles this season having been focused on their backline, Liverpool’s measurable underperformance has come at the other end of the pitch, particularly at Anfield.
In the four months that have passed since the Reds’ beat Tottenham at Anfield, they have scored a brain-shattering 6 goals from 16.6 expected goals in all competitions. It is an outrageous cold streak that seems entirely unlikely to continue, but it persisted again tonight, as Liverpool’s front men were unable to convert the number of chances, both big and small, that fell their way, either placing shots straight at Thibaut Courtois or blazing them over the bar.
There is no satisfactory explanation for this underperformance, and it still seems impossible that it can sustain itself for much longer, but if the Reds want to have a chance at European redemption next year, they must make sure to break the trend immediately.
What Happens Next
There’s only one thing left to play for in this cursed season now, and that’s a top four Premier League spot and qualification for next year’s Champions League. The Reds are in a difficult but not impossible position, sitting three points off fourth placed West Ham, with Chelsea sandwiched in between, and as the two sides will face off against each other two weeks from now, a perfect run of seven wins is likely to get the job done.
That run needs to start on Monday, as Liverpool travel to neutral fan favourites Leeds in what will undoubtedly be a high-energy back-and-forth affair.