Germany football is not like English football in the way it is organised. It’s cup competitions usually start far earlier in the season and, in fact, its League Cup starts in July and finishes before the year is out. For that reason, German teams are usually much further ahead in the pre-season preparations by now. For teams who will be playing European football in the coming months, that makes mid-table Bundesliga sides the perfect opposition at this stage of pre-season.
Liverpool against Hertha Berlin was billed as a tribute game to both clubs for 125 years of professional football. In reality, it was a vital test in Liverpool’s preparations for when the Premier League kicks off in two weeks time. For Hertha, it was an indicator of just how far along they were in their bid to be ready for the Bundesliga and measuring stick for Pal Dardai to hold his side against – a good performance and result would undoubtedly have been a morale booster for his young squad.
Hertha came into the game on the back of a 9-0 demolition of a local side on Friday night. They had also play a friendly with Malaga last week which had turned into a hostile affair. Centre of the hostilities was Vedad Ibisevic, who retained his place up front tonight against former Chelsea forward Salomon Kalou. Another ex-Premier League player, Kerim Rekik, was also in the Hertha line up. On the bench was managers son Pal Dardai, of whom big things are expected. Also featuring in the home dugout was Jonathon Klinsmann, son of Jurgen. The American U-20 goalkeeper has recently signed for his boyhood club after a successful trial, but would not feature in this game, unfortunately for him and his onlooking father.
For Liverpool, Simon Mignolet retained his place in goal despite Jurgen Klopp’s insistance that all the goalkeepers were on trial for the number one shirt. Joe Gomez came in at right back, with Ragnar Klavan, Joel Matip and Alberto Moreno making up the other three shirts in the back four. An offensive midfield welcomed the return of Emre Can at its base, behind Georginio Wijnaldum and Adam Lallana. This meant that Philippe Coutinho would move out to the left, the opposite flank to Sadio Mane who was making his first appearance in four months. Divock Origi was supposed to start up front but a slight injury in the warm up was treated with high precaution, and so Dominic Solanke took his place. Andrew Robertson would be forced to make his debut from the bench in a dugout that clearly took into consideration the upcoming games in Munich against Bayern, Napoli and Atletico Madrid in the Audi Cup in midweek.
Pal Dardai had clearly instructed his team to start in an aggressive manner, employing a high press strategy and implementing some hefty tackles on the Liverpool players. They looked to push forward thought and right back Mitchell Weisser appeared to be their main threat. In the 8th minute of the game, he broke forward and drove at Alberto Moreno. He cut inside the Liverpool left back but could only scuff his shot wide of Simon Mignolets goal. It was a let off for football and a warning they should have heeded. The former Bayern Munich defender is highly rated in Germany and he would show why in this game. A couple of minutes later, Weisser would again be at the centre of a Hertha attack – or more like on the right of it. Breaking down the right touchline again, he fired a cross into the area. Adam Lallana tried to get the ball under control but it fell it Matthew Leckie who flicked it towards the penalty spot where Vladimir Darida was waiting. Darida took it first time on the half volley but could only find the welcoming arms of Simon Mignolet. In these opening stages, Liverpool seemed unable to live with the oppositions high press or Mitchell Weisser.
On 15 minutes though, red nerves would be settled by Dom Solanke. The youngster who recently arrived from Chelsea has so far been a fine addition to the team and showed why with this deftly executed finish. A goal kick from Hertha ‘keeper, Rune Jarstein, was kept in play by Joe Gomez. His header fell to Mane. The Senegalese winger dribbled 10 yards before finding Lallana on the corner of the Hertha box. Lallana took one touch, looked up and chipped the ball towards the head of Solanke. It seemed to be dropping behind the 19 year old, but, with a tremendously leap and ability to hang in the air, Solanke managed to loop his header into a narrow gap between Jarstein’s glove and the crossbar. Jarstein probably could and should have done more, but take nothing away from this excellent finish. It was an extremely difficult skill, but Solanke had nailed it and put his team ahead in the process.
Liverpool started to gain a foothold in the game, but Mitchell Weisser was still causing a nuisance down the Liverpool left. His running was forcing Ragnar Klavan to come over and cover the struggling Moreno. The fact of the matter is that Moreno probably had enough pace to deal with Weisser and had, so far, held his position well. He was playing much better defensively than he previously has in red. But Klavan seemed to show a lack of trust in his full back and his involvement was doing more harm than good, as he was abandoning his position for no good reason. This was personified when he was bullied by Weisser down the Hertha right. Weisser then had a free run towards goal. He cut the ball back on the edge of the 6 yard box to the onrushing Ondrej Duda, who side footed towards Mignolet’s opposite corner. But Joel Matip managed to stick out a boot and flick it out for a corner.
Despite defensive lapses, Liverpool were still making chances. Before Duda nearly equalised for Hertha, Sadio Mane nearly doubled Liverpool’s lead. He inadvertently played a one-two with the centre half in the right hand channel and carried on his run. His first touch again ricocheted off the centre half and up into the air. On the corner of the area 7 yards from goal, Mane let the ball drop before hitting it first time on the volley and firing narrowly over. Liverpool continued to have most of the ball and, in the 38th minute, had their reward. Fabian Lustenberger, playing the unfamiliar central midfield role, had the ball in the left back position and proceeded to try and play himself out of trouble. Dom Solanke was sniffing about though and dispossessed the experienced Swiss international. He played the ball to Mane on the corner of the Hertha box, who turned and layed it to Gini Wijnaldum. Wijnaldum took one touch and shot from the edge of the area into the bottom right corner of the goal. His shot was slightly scuffed but only served to make it harder for Jarstein to save. Liverpool were now 2-0 up and cruising. This tricky test in one Europe’s busiest capitals was turning into a walk along Southport beach.
When the referee blew for half time, there was no doubt that Jurgen Klopp would have been the happier of the two managers. His side had shown maturity and grit to cope with some cynical tactics. There had also been some impressive performances. Dom Solanke had so far put in a display beyond his years. He had scored a fantastic header and worked hard to set up another, but the most impressive thing about Solanke so far is the wisdom of his exertion. He doesn’t chase lost causes, instead only chasing balls that he thinks he may have a chance of winning, thus, conserving energy. In games like this, when you know the opposition are feisty but prone to mistakes, that is a very good player to have.
When the teams emerged for the second period, Liverpool fans were intrigued to see the debut of Andrew Robertson. The recent £8.5 million arrival from Hull City would have been champing at the bit to get some action in a red shirt for the first time. He made an auspicious start to the game. After a 20 drive was rattled into the chest of Rune Jarstein from the Scottish left back, he was then exposed by Alexander Esswein. The winger ran at Robertson and turned him inside-out before leaving him on his backside. Esswein then shot at Mignolet and the danger was removed. Not two minutes later, Roberto Firmino held the ball up on the Liverpool left. Robertson galloped forward on the overlap and zipped a teasing ball across goal. Mohamed Salah, also on as a substitute, had not timed his run properly though and his contact was not good enough to direct the ball towards goal. In the space of 6 minutes, we had already seen the best and worst of our new full back.
On the opposite side to Robertson though, Joe Gomez was turning in a fine display. Gomez is naturally a centre half but has spent most of his time at the club at full back, playing his best games out wide. During his long stint on the sidelines, it is clear that Gomez has been in the gym and cut a bulky figure on the right of Liverpool’s defence. Indeed his imposing stature will have put off the opposition as Gomez seemed to deal with attacks with ease. He also managed to get forward and scare his opposing number on multiple occasions. But it wouldn’t be Gomez who would star in Liverpool’s third of the afternoon.
In the 63rd minute, Phil Coutinho took possession of the ball deep in his own half. 40 yards from his own goal and surrounded by opposition shirts, he turned exquisitely and escaped them all before playing a sumptuous 50 yard ball into the Hertha half. The pass dissected the centre halves and was weighted perfectly for Mo Salah to run onto. From 20 yards out and with the ‘keeper rushing to close him down, Salah had a multitude of decisions to take. But the one he took was fantastic. Without a first touch, he superbly lifted the ball over Jarstein and into the Hertha net to round off the scoring. Everything about the goal was sensational – the turn, the pass, the run, the finish. If this is how the Liverpool attack intend to link up come August then the rest of the Premier League better sit up and take notice.
Although it was only friendly, this was the game were Coutinho showed everyone why a club like Barcelona are keen on his services. Coutinho lined up on the left wing but, for all intents and purposes, was basically allowed to roam wherever he wanted to. With a talent like his in your team, it would be foolish to try and contain him to one position. His touch and vision was astounding, and he is gaining an enigmatic aura on the pitch similar to that Luis Suarez possessed. But where Suarez was maniacal in his style of play, Coutinho oozes class and self-control. The ball sticks to him like glue and he never gets flustered.
With Hertha Berlin’s first half onslaught seemingly curbed by Liverpool, the next half an hour became all about game management. Hertha didn’t really threaten Liverpool, and Liverpool seemed happy to sit on 3-0 and see the game out. When the referee blew for full time, it was a relief for everyone especially the home side. At the full time whistle, Jurgen Klopp was not as impressed with Liverpool’s attacking play saying that we overplayed in key areas. Overall though he seemed happy with the performance, especially considering the tactics employed by the opposition. And why wouldn’t he be? His team came through a tricky affair with ease. Hertha Berlin will be looking forward to some competitive action very soon and face the prospect of a much fitter Hansa Rostock side next, who will be starting the 2.Bundesliga before they start their own league campaign. Liverpool have come through unscathed and with another morale boosting win. Pre-season games have been extremely successful for us so far. Next up though are some very difficult games against three of Europes best in the Audi Cup.