Liverpool’s long-awaited return to the Champions League failed to live up to the hopes of the fans, as the team slipped to a 2-2 draw at home to Sevilla in the opening group game. Sadly, however, it probably did live up to expectations: the hosts dominated, but defensive frailties were once again exploited. This has become an all-too familiar story, despite Klopp having plenty of time to rectify it: the frustration of another two points lost through abject defending clouds the positives from what was in many respects an excellent showing.
Liverpool started the stronger of the two sides; Mane and Salah both found themselves in one-vs-one situations against their full-backs within the first few minutes, neither of whom looked comfortable dealing with the pace and trickery of the Liverpool wide men. However, it was the Spanish side who opened the scoring with their first attack of the game – lack of defensive assertiveness from the midfield allowed the ball to find its way over to the flank all too easily, and Lovren comprehensively failed to deal with the subsequent ball across the face of goal. Ben Yedder was on hand to turn the ball home. Karius, whose selection ahead of Mignolet raised some eyebrows, couldn’t have done anything: it was those in front of him left with serious questions to answer.
The attackers certainly did their best to answer these questions, or at least make up for the defence’s inability to answer them. They looked in scintillating form, and it felt as though it was only a matter of time before Liverpool drew level. Sure enough, Klopp’s men equalised in the 21st minute: Henderson worked it wide to Moreno, who squared it delightfully for Firmino to turn home. The left-back was excellent throughout the game against his former club, particularly going forward – he and Mane looked a constant threat to Mercado, who picked up a yellow trying to stop them and was lucky not to see a second. It was the other side, though, that brought the goal to give Liverpool the lead. Mo Salah showed great tenacity to dispossess Steven N’Zonzi. It was probably a foul, but he played to the whistle and reaped his reward: he pulled the trigger and his shot deflected wildly of Simon Kjaer and into the back of the net. It was a freak goal, but no less than the performance deserved. Indeed, it probably warranted more – Firmino had the chance to give Liverpool a two-goal lead from the spot heading into the break following a blatant foul on Mane, but the Brazilian struck the post.
This proved costly. Things didn’t come quite as easily for the hosts in the second period – the wide men were not nullified as such, but Sevilla had certainly adjusted to limit their threat. They continued to knock on the door, and in truth still looked the better side, but there was always a nagging feeling that not getting the third would be a problem. Such is the effect of having a mediocre defence: confidence in seeing out a lead is an alien feeling to Liverpool fans. Sure enough, Sevilla found a way through in the 72nd minute: Henderson lost his man, Lovren and Matip were too far apart and the ball was slotted through the gap and into the path of Correa. He made no mistake past the once-again helpless Karius. There were a couple of subsequent extremely nervous moments, made no easier by the late dismissal of Joe Gomez, but the game ended 2-2.
A point on the board against the toughest opponents in the group is far from tragic, particularly given the 1-1 draw in the game between Spartak and Maribor. Equally, the performance was a long way from bad: the attacking build-up play was thrilling to watch, with the final ball or finish the only thing lacking on many occasions. This can be worked on in training, and will also improve once Coutinho is fully reintegrated to the starting eleven – once this begins to click, we could be looking at a truly lethal attacking force. However, even while heaping praise on the attack, the shadow of the defence looms: they are seemingly beyond help on the training ground, which begs the question of why on earth Klopp did not recruit upgrades in the summer window. Lovren is sometimes unfairly vilified, but this was not one of those occasions: he turned in an abject performance which undoubtedly contributed to dropping two points. Van Dijk would have been an ideal solution, but he was surely not the only one – thrilled as most fans are to have Klopp at the helm, he cannot escape criticism for this frankly bewildering oversight. Matip, on the other hand, had a good game – it was an archetypal ball-playing centre-back display, and in truth he was a more effective playmaker than most of the midfield. This does not apply to Wijnaldum, who came up with undoubtedly his best performance of a season that has been underwhelming up to this point.
Clearly, then, there were lots of positives. The attack is genuinely capable of becoming one of the best front threes in world football, and the midfield has players who on their day are all capable of offering admirable support to the build-up play. The defence is still a centre-back short of even being considered competent, however: having failed to recruit once again, it is hard to see how this changes before January. This leaves a very bitter taste from a performance that, in truth, was not bad at all.
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