Has there been an odder build-up to a Champions League last-sixteen match in Liverpool’s history? We beat Bayer Leverkusen 3-1 in the first-leg in 2004-2005, but the away goal tempered celebrations somewhat. Similarly our excitement was limited when we beat Inter Milan 2-0 in the first-leg of our last sixteen round in 2007-2008 because that’s not exactly a dominant scoreline. Beating Real Madrid 1-0 at the Santiago Bernabéu was exciting, but no-one could foresee the 4-0 win that would come at home in the second-leg. It’s fair to say, then, that in the modern era we haven’t headed into what should be such an important match with a feeling that the result of the tie was as good as a certainty. Jürgen Klopp did his job of playing down feelings of over-confidence during his pre-match press conference, suggesting that on another say we could have left the match having won just 3-2 with all still to play for.
They may be 5-0 down but the Porto fans are in full voice 👏👌 #LFC
🎬 @CMillustrations pic.twitter.com/HbkhZlGKDx
— Anything Liverpool (@AnythingLFC_) March 6, 2018
Yet we didn’t, we won 5-0. Five away goals against a team that everyone was saying was brilliantly defensive ahead of our game against them. A five-nil first-leg win when we haven’t conceded more than three goals at Anfield all season was enough to suggest that this game was essentially a dead rubber. Added to that the fact that Porto were without some of their key players heading into the game and you can see why Liverpool supporters weren’t quite sure how to approach this match. Had it finished 3-2 in Portugal, as the manner suggested it could’ve, fans would’ve known that they’d need to bring their A-Game, as they have so many times before for a European night. Instead we didn’t even know what team to expect, with supporters debating whether the manager should rest the big players ahead of our trip to Old Trafford. This was never going to the sort of night that would rival Chelsea in ’04-’05 or Dortmund in the Europa League in ’15-’16, unless Porto got an early goal. What where the main talking points, then?
Did Klopp Make Enough Changes?
Ahead of the game, Jürgen Klopp made clear that he wouldn’t be making too many changes. He made absolutely clear that he wanted his side to be taking this game as seriously as possible, expecting ‘a reaction’ from Porto after the were humiliated in the first-leg at the Estádio do Dragão. Personally I spent the week saying that I hoped the German would make ten changes, with the only player keeping his place from our 2-0 win over Newcastle being Loris Karius. Even that decision is based on the fact that I never want to see Simon Mignolet in a Liverpool shirt ever again. As is so often the case, the manager had different ideas to me.
#UCL team news… https://t.co/5rVaVEyNIn pic.twitter.com/LQJiOquhXV
— Liverpool FC (@LFC) 6 March 2018
I’d have gone with a side that looked like this:
Clyne – Matip – Gomez – Moreno
Milner – Wijnaldum – Lallana
Solanke – Ings – Woodburn
Admittedly, I have no idea on the fitness of Gini Wijnaldum and Ben Woodburn, nor Dominic Solanke or Danny Ings, come to think of it. I wasn’t saying we should play the kids, but there are plenty of players in our squad who need a bit of pitch time. I would also have liked to have seen the likes of Jordan Henderson and Roberto Firmino given a rest, with the former unlikely to be able to play three games in a week and the latter playing virtually every match so far this season. If Firmino picks up an injury we’ll likely be turning to Danny Ings, yet the former Burnley man has had almost no time on the pitch and will surely be out of rhythm if we ask him to come straight into the side to replace the Brazilian.
This struck me as the perfect match to give him a run out to prove what he could do. Yet the manager might be looking at the fact that Firmino is currently second on the Champions League Golden Boot list, just four goals behind Cristiano Ronaldo. He’s scored in every game so far, so will have wanted to continue that record and Klopp might have decided to use a bit of man management in letting him play. The simple truth is that we weren’t going to lose this tie, so the manager had an opportunity to rest all of his key players ahead of our trip to our fiercest rivals on Saturday. He didn’t take it and whether or not that turns out to be a mistake will likely only be known after the final whistle at Old Trafford. It goes without saying, of course, that Jürgen Klopp knows a lot more than me about football, so I hope he keeps making me look like a fool!
Champions League knockout football back at Anfield after a nine-year absence #LFC pic.twitter.com/SPN99JEGaH
— James Pearce (@JamesPearceEcho) March 6, 2018
In the end, of course, this was Liverpool’s first bit of knockout football in the Champions League for nine years, so you can understand why the manager didn’t want to take any chances. He often refers to the need for rhythm from his players, so it’s no surprise that he didn’t make as many changes as I would have. Still, heading into this game we were unbeaten in Europe for thirteen matches and were playing a side that hadn’t won in England in their last seventeen attempts, so I wasn’t exactly worried about throwing away our 5-0 lead. No early goal came for Porto, which removed any possible pressure on us, and the first-half played out exactly as Jürgen Klopp will have been hoping it would. We got minutes into the legs of the lads that needed it and the likes of Firmino and Henderson didn’t need to do much running, so my call for a weaker team in order to protect them was made to look foolish in the extreme.
It’s All About United
Let’s be honest, however much Jürgen Klopp might speak about taking it one game at a time, there’s no question that every single person associated with the club will have been thinking about the game against Manchester United on Saturday. That’s precisely why the game was played at a pace more akin to walking football than the second-leg of a European last sixteen tie. It’s also why the manager made the team selection that he made, with Virgil van Dijk and Mohamed Salah sitting in the bench rather than running around on the pitch. It’s also why Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané left the field of play relatively early on in proceedings.
0 – Liverpool failed to direct a single shot on target in the 1st half of a game for only the second time this season (also v Chelsea 25th Nov in PL). Sleepy.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) March 6, 2018
The lack of urgency was because we really didn’t need to show any. This tie was over as a contest as soon as the final whistle went in Portugal. This was mostly about Porto maintaining their dignity and our lads getting through the game unscathed. In his post-match interview the manager made all of the right noises about being disappointed in our lack of intensity, but he wouldn’t really have been all that annoyed about it. We’re heading to Old Trafford in a couple of days to play a game that could see us move ahead of José Mourinho’s team into second. If we can finish there and go deep into Champions League then this will class as a really successful season.
I can understand that those inside Anfield might have been a little bit disappointed not to see a bit of a show, but kicking an animal that is already dead is just cruel. The match played out perfectly as far as I’m concerned, not least because Mourinho won’t be entirely sure about which Liverpool he should expect to see at the weekend. Joe Gomez had a really solid game, for example, so might he keep his place at right-back? What will the manager do with the midfield? After all, you wouldn’t fancy watching James Milner play his third game in a week, so is Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain therefore guaranteed to start? Likewise, I mentioned before Jordan Henderson’s fitness issues of late and another ninety minutes from him means the Portuguese manager can’t be certain about who will play. One thing he will know, however, is that we’ll be rested and raring to go.
Danny Ings Looked Good
I was tempted to talk briefly here about the extent to which Dejan Lovren looks like a different player when he’s playing with Joel Matip rather than Virgil van Dijk. Whether that’s simply because he’s asked to move over to the right with the Dutchman and looks so much better there or whether it’s down to the former Southampton captain’s talkative nature is anyone’s guess, but he’s definitely worse with the Cameroonian then the world’s most expensive defender. However, rather than talk about how good van Dijk is in a game that he didn’t even play, I thought I’d give Danny Ings’s performance a quick shout out. He only got half an hour, but in that half hour you could see exactly why Jürgen Klopp chose not to let him leave on loan in January.
I really want to see @IngsDanny score tonight. Lad deserves a goal and he’s the kind of player I like. Puts in a shift every time.#LiverpoolFC
— Dillon Naber Cruz (@Cruzmissile72) March 6, 2018
There’s no question that there’s a drop off between him and Roberto Firmino, but I honestly think the Brazilian is in the top five strikers in the world on form right now. That’s certainly the case when you think about what he offers to this team in terms of work-rate and intelligence. Yet when we sold Roberto Firmino certain sections of Liverpool’s fan base acted as though Ings was some sort of League One player who had won a competition. I think that’s really unfair to him, who scored a number of decent goals before suffering two horrendous injuries.
He’s a player that could well have a part to play before the end of the season, given that we’ll need to rest Firmino if we go far in Europe. His effort towards the end of the match produced a really good save from Iker Casillas, which might have ended up in the back of the net against a lesser shot-stopper. I’d like to see Ings get a start or two before May rolls around.