Football is, more often than not, about narrative. The narrative before the first leg of this European tie was about Liverpool coming off the back of a 6-0 win against Aston Villa playing a team was barely able to buy a win in the Bundesliga. With the second leg coming just three days before the League Cup final there was a sense that Liverpool needed to win big so that they could play the kids for the home tie.
What followed in Germany was a not altogether surprising damp squib of a match; a drab affair that never felt like it was going to take off. It could have generously been called a ‘typical European away performance’, designed to keep things tight before winning the game on home turf. The less generous description would label it as a missed opportunity from a Liverpool team that were never at the races.
The narrative before the second leg was somewhat different. No longer were Augsburg being looked at as a lowly club from the backwaters of Germany, lucky to even be playing on the same pitch as the European giants of Liverpool. Now it was all about that impending League Cup final and the opportunity for players to prove to Jurgen Klopp that they deserved to be in his thoughts for Sunday.
Confirmed #LFC team v @FCAugsburg: Mignolet, Clyne, Lucas, Sakho, Moreno, Can, Henderson, Milner, Firmino, Coutinho, Sturridge
— Liverpool FC (@LFC) February 25, 2016
The German went with a strong team, refusing to rest any of his big guns ahead of their Wembley trip and instead asking them to show him the are undroppable for the big occasion. Only Kolo Toure found himself rested from the previous week, with Lucas Leiva coming in to replace him in the back line.
But if this was an audition opportunity then who took centre stage? Was there anyone waiting in the wings to step into the shoes of the main characters, should they flunk their lines?
For 45 minutes it looked as if it would be a matter of how many the Reds would score, rather than worrying about if they’d score any. The attacking players gave a masterclass in intelligent football, twisting and turning the Augsburg defence to the point that they didn’t know what day of the week it was, let alone where in the world they were playing.
Soft pen. But I’ve seen much softer and we haven’t had much luck this season. #lfc
— Dan Kennett (@DanKennett) February 25, 2016
It wouldn’t be like watching Liverpool play if everything was just plain sailing, though, so barely anyone in the ground or watching at home was surprised when the Reds failed to add to their solitary, somewhat fortunately earned, goal that came from the penalty spot after just four minutes.
The old adage about swans is that the legs work ten to the dozen underneath the water whilst the body above looks calm and serene. Liverpool’s defence were the legs, the body is the attack.
Daniel Sturridge, Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino were close to sensational when they clicked in the first-half. The attacking play was full of verve, movement and intelligent play that we haven’t been used to watching from the Reds in recent times. Whilst Christian Benteke causes the team’s play to be lumbered and slow, Sturridge gives the entire squad a focal point and an impetus.
There has been talk in recent weeks that Sturridge’s injury problems mean that he’s not the player to lead Liverpool forward, that he’s not the kind of player you can rely upon. The fact that he’s only just played more games for the Reds that he’s missed means there is some substance to that claim.
Yet there is little doubt that, when he’s fit, Sturridge is one of the best strikers in the Premier League. He is head and shoulders above the other forwards in Liverpool’s roster, that much is for certain. He didn’t score tonight, but his movement and intelligence in finding space in the final third is invaluable for a team that has struggled to do just that in recent times.
Lots of positive signs for #LFC in that half. Fine margins away from hatful of goals. That’s the pace & intensity I expect from Klopp team.
— Si Steers (@sisteers) February 25, 2016
Whilst the attack is starting to look like it could be a force to be reckoned with for any team in the league, the defence is still lacking a degree of calmness and composure. Those that wish to defend the defenders would point out that we didn’t concede tonight and played 180 minutes over two legs without allowing the opposition to score, but that fails to look at the broader picture.
The amount of times defenders were out of position or struggling to deal with an overhit pass was enough to make the eyes roll and the shoulders sag. But for Simon Mignolet’s quick reactions – and we all know that’s not something we can depend upon – the Reds could easily have conceded a couple of goals tonight.
The presence of Lucas in the backline should have given us a degree of calm, but even he wasn’t averse to chucking in an under hit back pass that gave everyone palpitations. His previous play as a defensive midfielder means that he’s got a good understanding of the game and can read attacks in advance. Yet it also means that he’s sometimes prone to wandering off on his own and leaving Sakho exposed, something the Frenchman could do without.
Two leg stats, LFC v Augsburg:
Shots on target: 12-5
Shots in the box: 24-7
Should’ve battered them… But good job we had a pen.
— Andrew Beasley (@BassTunedToRed) February 25, 2016
All in all, over the course of the two legs, Liverpool were by far the better team and to limit the opposition to just 5 shots on target over two legs is something that shouldn’t be sniffed at. Yet there will be better teams to face should the Reds progress all the way to the final and a performance like tonight’s won’t be enough.
My Kingdom For A Corner
When you write match reviews there are some topics that are match specific. There are other things that you feel like you’re mentioning again and again and again. And again. Liverpool’s inability to look dangerous from corners seems to be a tale as old as time.
Liverpool were awarded twelve corners tonight. Twelve. How many did James Milner take? How many of them did he seem to hit straight into the hands of the ‘keeper? It wasn’t even as if the Augsburg goalie had to work particularly hard for them, either, he just strolled out and caught the ball.
Some really good play tonight!except the corners!!!!!!!!!!help.
— John Aldridge (@Realaldo474) February 25, 2016
Of course every set of supporters feel like their team can’t take corners, but for Liverpool it often seems as if we’re more likely to concede from our own corner than score. When up against a team that knows how to counter it doesn’t take much, having normally pushed up our defenders, to put ourselves into a terrible position at the back.
The short corner is something I find extremely frustrating, too. Why send up all of your biggest players only to mess around with it by playing it short? More often that not it allows the opposition’s defence to get themselves organised and to push out, meaning that when the ball is eventually played in the offside flag goes up.
Barcelona are the team that is often referred to by the advocate of the short corner, but they’re an exception to the rule. When you’ve got players like Luis Suarez, Lionel Messi and Neymar in your frontline it’s easy enough to pass the ball around cleverly and stretch the opposition. When you’re asking the likes of James Milner, Emre Can and a Jordan Henderson whose injured heal means he’s got the turning circle of the Ark Royal to do the same, it’s only going to end in disappointment.
Klopp knows all of this, of course. He’s made efforts already to bring in some taller players in Grujic and Matip, the latter of whom has something of a reputation for scoring from corners over in Germany. But he’ll also want to get working on the corner takers to ensure that their delivery finds a player in a red shirt more often than it finds the opposition’s goalkeeper.
There is so much of this season that has shadows of Liverpool’s past, particularly the 2000-2001 season under Gerrard Houllier. Yes the FA Cup dream is over, but the League Cup could still be won this weekend and we’ve now progressed into the last sixteen of the Europa League, the new name of the UEFA Cup that we won as part of our treble fifteen years ago.
16 – Liverpool have reached the last 16 of a European competition for the first time since the 2010/11 season. Relief.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) February 25, 2016
Liverpool have done nowhere near well enough in Europe in recent years. The halcyon days of Rafa Benitez’s Liverpool ruling Europe and feeling as though they could beat anyone are long gone. Instead they’ve been replaced by a performance against Real Madrid at Anfield that stank of showing the Spanish side too much respect.
You’ve got to be in it to win it, though, and Liverpool’s 1-0 win over Augsburg tonight means that their name is in the hat for the next round. How far can the Reds’ European dream go? We’ll find out in a fortnight. Before that though, there’s the draw, so who will we get when the balls are tipped out of the bag? Find out tomorrow! European dreams will continue to be dreamt and the Anfield floodlights will once again light up for foreign opposition. Long may it continue.