In what was, to the neutral observer with no skin in the game, at least, a Champions League classic, containing two teams committed to playing high-octane attacking football, in-game adjustments, countless duels, and dramatic momentum shifts, Liverpool pull out a win, courtesy of a Roberto Firmino header and an instinctive Mohamed Salah strike.
The result sees the Reds comfortable favourites ahead of the return leg at Anfield, as a dogged Inter side failed to turn their periods of dominance into clear cut scoring opportunities and goals. Below, we give some credit where we feel it’s due.
Squad Depth: With the hosts piling on the pressure and Liverpool’s midfield struggling to both match Inter’s physical play and hold possession when they won it, Jürgen Klopp went to his bench, and what a bench it was.
Bringing on his captain Jordan Henderson and two £50m men in Naby Keïta and Luis Díaz, the manager wrested control away the Nerazzurri, and soon after got the reward he wanted. Henderson and Keïta combined to give midfield the combination of steel and composure it needed in such relentless conditions, while Díaz offered a dynamic outlet that saw the Reds able to keep the ball in the opposition half much more often, taking pressure off their defense.
A squad that, before the season, was considered by many inferior in quality of depth than those of the Reds’ rivals has proven itself to in fact be tremendously rich in talent, to the extent that guessing the starting XI on a weekly basis is a nigh impossible task. Just what you need when you’re battling on four trophy fronts.
Il Capitano: He’s not been having a great time of it recently, Jordan Henderson, but he proved his worth to those doubting him tonight, righting the ship with his introduction into a side that had let itself become frazzled under the pressure and physicality of their opponents.
He didn’t have a hand in either of the goals directly, but there can be little doubt that Henderson made a massive difference in the flow of the game upon his introduction, and the immediate dropoff in effective attacking output from the hosts proves as much.
Bobby Dazzler: Another man who has been struggling to find his form this season is Roberto Firmino, who has lost his guaranteed starting place to the deadly Diogo Jota, and has cut a decreasingly effective figure on the pitch, with the vintage tricks and flicks coming much less regularly.
He’s definitely not done as a contributor to the team, however, and proved as much tonight with a phenomenal headed effort at the near post that looped past the considerable reach of Samir Handanovic and nestled into the side netting at the far post. He may not be the man for every moment anymore, but there is plenty of room in Bobby Firmino for some big ones.
Set-Pieces: When you’re struggling to find the breakthrough away from home and your defenders are forced to do more defending than they’d ideally prefer, set-pieces are a wonderful tonic, and Liverpool have some of the best deliveries and deadliest targets in the game. In the last seven games, Liverpool have scored the first goal, and in six of them, that first goal has come from a set-piece. Simply a tremendous asset for a team who are rarely allowed much space to attack into by terrified opponents.
Comfort Addicts: Listen, Liverpool are one of the very best teams in the world, by most reasonable assertions, in the top three, but they also play in some of the toughest competitions on the planet, and in this tournament at this stage, there are no easy matches.
As such, Reds fans will need to prepare themselves for contests far closer and more uncomfortable than was the case in the group stage, and that nights like this, in away grounds with rambunctious fans and opponents playing for their life, will be the norm from now until, hopefully, Klopp’s men enter the arena in St Petersburg on May 28th.
Credit to the opposition
Inter were smart and brave in the first half, setting up their base play to circumvent Liverpool’s press and their own pressing structure to take away the Reds’ favoured outlets, and they were tremendously successful in the first 20 minutes, denying their visitors their usual control, until Klopp made the necessary adjustments to adapt to the challenge.
In the second half they were relentless, completely outbattling their opponents in the opening quarter, and although the air went out of them somewhat upon conceding the first goal, and utterly after Mohamed Salah claimed the second, it was an impressive performance, that on another night, could have reasonably ended with a much more positive scoreline for the home side.
What Happens Next
There is no rest for the ambitious, and Liverpool have a quick turnaround before they continue their assault on Manchester City’s Premier League lead with a visit from a resurgent Norwich side that has notched three wins and a draw in their last five on Saturday, before hosting a Leeds side that has somehow gotten involved in the relegation battle the following Wednesday.