Pre-season tournaments can be a recipe for disaster. There are a number of ingredients which can contribute to this. Firstly, who are you playing? If you are playing teams from your own country or division, especially teams you are expected to beat, then people start to look into your performances very deeply. Secondly, what is your status in the tournament? Are you favourites or not? If you are favourites then the pressure is on, even in ‘meaningless’ friendlies. Finally, where is the tournament being held? On home soil is great because there is need to travel far or to acclimatise to the weather. Somewhere hot and humid is not good. Those conditions can be draining on players and give false indicators on performance. Unfortunately for Liverpool in the Asia Trophy they were playing teams from their division, in extremely difficult, humid conditions, and were favourites.
However after overcoming Crystal Palace with such ease of Wednesday you would have forgiven Liverpool for being quietly confident going into the final against Leicester City. After all, their opponents needed penalties to knock West Bromwich Albion out in the other semi-final. But this is still pre-season and players are still finding fitness and rhythm. With that in mind, a number of changes were made. Loris Karius came back into goal in place of Simon Mignolet and Joel Matip’s new central defensive partner was Dejan Lovren. Alberto Moreno was replaced by James Milner but Trent Alexander-Arnold was given a chance to continue his impressive pre-season by starting at right back. Jurgen Klopp’s side started with no recognised holding midfielder though, instead starting with a trio comprising of Adam Lallana, Philippe Coutinho and Giorginho Wijnaldum. Divock Origi replaced Daniel Sturridge up front after scoring on Wednesday, and was joined by Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino.
Leicester had a number of new players in their squad. Harry Maguire started at centre half alongside captain Wes Morgan. Vicente Iborra and Eldin Jakupovic could only make the bench. Matty James started on his 26th birthday along with Islam Slimani, despite recent murmurings regarding the Algerian target man’s immediate future at the club. Riyad Mahrez continued on Leicester’s right following an impressive display against West Brom in midweek.
A noise and largely red crowd witnessed a scrappy start to the game which had its first chance after three minutes. Salah played the ball to Coutinho centrally. The Brazilian shot but it was right down Kasper Schmeichal’s throat in the opposition goal. A half chance at best but a warning for Leicester to take Coutinho lightly at their own peril. Liverpool couldn’t build on that chance though. They looked over-eager and like they were forcing their play. This along with Leicester collective work rate forced mistakes and, in the twelfth minute, it paid off for the foxes.
Adam Lallana couldn’t control the ball in midfield and lost it Danny Drinkwater. After retaining possession, Christian Fuchs was played in down the Leicester left and found himself in acres of space. Unchallenged, Fuchs chipped the ball to the back post. Liverpool fans could only look on in horror as Slimani rose above James Milner and thundered his header past Karius from the corner of the 6 yard box. Leicester’s high press had paid dividends and they were ahead. It was early in the game but Liverpool needed to improve if they were mount a comeback.
Immediately after the goal that didn’t seem likely. Firstly Riyad Mahrez skipped across the face of the 18 yard box before being brought down on the edge of the ‘D’, but Danny Drinkwater’s free kick was poor. A couple of minutes later Joel Matip played a hospital pass back to Karius. The German ‘keeper did well to keep the ball in but played it straight to the feet of Mark Albrighton. A good touch from Albrighton would have set him up to shoot into an open goal from the right edge of the Liverpool box. Luckily for Matip and Karius his touch was awful and the ball bounced back to the gangly centre half. Liverpool had been let off and it seemed to spark them into life.
Liverpool began to grow into the game and the midfield were now doing a better job of retaining possession. On twenty one minutes, we had our reward. Adam Lallana played a lovely ball 40 yards out to the right, into the feet of Mohamed Salah. The Egyptian looked like he controlled the ball with his hand, but the ref let play go on. After playing a one-two with Alexander-Arnold, Salah played the ball short inside to Coutinho. From a central position, Coutinho chipped the ball into the box for Salah who had continued his run. He reached the ball before Maguire and superbly placed his header into Kasper Schmeichel’s bottom right corner. A fantastic goal which teased exactly what Mohamed Salah will bring to the team in a more competitive setting.
Liverpool pressed ahead and attempted to seize control of the game. Mo Salah was getting back and helping out Trent Alexander-Arnold when he could and his work rate should not be forgotten when listing his many positive attributes. But he was nowhere to be seen When Albrighton threatened Karius’ goal again on the half hour mark. Fuchs cut the ball back to Albrighton on the Leicester left. The winger dropped the shoulder and left Alexander-Arnold in his wake. Taking one more touch inside, Albrighton shot from 25 yards but was only able to ripple the outside of Karius’ net. Leicester were showing that they were not out of this game and didn’t intend to let it slip away.
Leicester were starting to play a much a more direct game, hitting the ball long for Jamie Vardy to run onto. The duo of Lovren and Matip seemed comfortable though, dropping an extra yard or two to give Vardy space and intercept the ball as it bounced. The route one tactic was used by most teams against Liverpool last season. We do seem vulnerable to long balls forward especially if the opposition have pace which can exploit any mistakes. But, for that reason, it is hard to judge any teams’ performance against Liverpool. You cannot definitively say how any given team plays regularly by watching a Liverpool game. With that said, Liverpool dominate the game to an extent where the oppositions only option is to knock it long. If we lose the ball, we hunt in packs until we regain possession. If we cannot regain the ball then we regain our shape and become difficult to break down. For all of our defensive deficiencies, and there are plenty, one thing we can be is stubborn.
Tonight though Liverpool were stubborn both aerially and on the floor. When we did win the ball back at the back, Leicester would immediately drop into their own half an invite pressure. It was a risky tactic which nearly came back to haunt them when Dejan Lovren won a free kick on the right edge of the Leicester area. Coutinho curled a teasing ball into the six yard box. An indecisive Schmeichel was only able to get half a hand on it before crashing to the floor. The ball fell to Gini Wijnaldum twelve yards from goal. He volleyed but it went narrowly wide. Ten minutes later however Leicester wouldn’t be so lucky. Alberto Moreno, on as an early substitute for James Milner, switched the ball to Mo Salah. From the corner of the area, he chipped it into the Roberto Firmino on the opposite corner. Firmino was unable to gain control but his poor first touch fell to Coutinho. The Brazilian magician took two touches before unleashing a powerful, curling effort into the top corner of the goal. Liverpool had been in the ascendancy and now had a goal they deserved, and what a goal it was.
The half time whistle must have been a welcome sound for both sets of players in such close conditions. It was a half where you could say you had saw the best and worst of Liverpool. A team with a high work rate could clearly seize on any of our mistakes with devastating effect. But it looked like we had improved defensively in all aspects which is undoubtedly the most pleasing thing. Up front, we looked unstoppable. If this was Mo Salah at only half of his ability, then seeing him go flat out will certainly be a joy for every Kopite, and Phil Coutinho was back to his frightening best.
The beginning of the second half meant that Liverpool made four changes. Entering the fray were Ragnar Klavan, Jordan Henderson, Marko Grujic and Daniel Sturridge. Making way for them were Roberto Firmino, Joel Matip, Adam Lallana and Divock Origi. Leicester also made changes of their own bringing on Tom Lawrence, Andy King and Danny Simpson in place of Daniel Amartey, Mark Albrighton and Islam Slimani. The changes to both sides inspired a mini-revival in Leicester.
Within two minutes of the restart Leicester had the first chance of the half. Andy King had the ball on the left touchline. Unchallenged, he came inside and slid a wonderful ball into the channel for Vardy to run onto. Vardy got there and chipped it over Karius, who had come sprawling out to narrow the angle. Fortunately for Liverpool it had gone inches wide. But they didn’t heed the warning. Minutes later Danny Simpson sent a long ball Vardy’s way which split Liverpool’s centre back pairing. An unusually hesitant Vardy dawdled on the ball though and allowed Ragnar Klavan to recover and make a last ditch tackle, which sent the ball trickling into the hands of the ‘keeper. Leicester’s direct play looked like it could eventually bear fruit, especially if Liverpool persisted to defend in such a docile manner.
It was however a temporary resurgence for the foxes. Liverpool again regained a foothold in the game and began to create chances. When Trent Alexander-Arnold cut the ball back to Jordan Henderson on the Liverpool right, the skipper curled a tempting ball into the Leicester area. Marko Grujic, who had started the move in midfield, now found himself unmarked in the box and launched a spectacular, diving volley powerfully towards goal but it ended up flying centimetres over the bar.
With Henderson now at the base of Liverpool’s midfield, the reds had someone pulling the strings. It has to be said that the introduction of Henderson to the deep-lying playmaker role has been a revelation for him. He has displayed a range of passing which many didn’t know he had. He has also displayed maturity and discipline which was thought to be absent from his game. These new found characteristics, along with the captain’s armband being passed down to him by Steven Gerrard two years ago, have seen the headless chicken bought from Sunderland in 2011 for £16 million, grow into a tactful fox who any team would be lucky to have.
With Henderson leading by example, Liverpool played the game in his image. They probed and pressed patiently. With the result in our favour, the reds knew they no longer needed to chase the game. Leicester had begun with a high tempo but were now floundering in the tropical temperatures. Having played a game more than our opponents, it was obvious that Liverpool were ahead in our pre-season preparation. For the rest of the half Leicester focussed on forcing Liverpool narrow. Dominic Solanke and Ryan Kent had come on as subs but couldn’t get into the game because of the oppositions constriction. Kent did however have one moment where he stepped over the ball and left Danny Simpson for dead down the Liverpool right, before whipping a teasing ball into the area which was cleared by Yohan Benalouane. For anyone who hadn’t seen Kent play so far in pre-season, it was a flashing glimpse of how he had been performing.
When the referee blew the final whistle, the relief that this was tournament was over was clear on everyone’s faces. The draining climate had affected everyone and the deep red shirts the Liverpool players wore were now a deeper shade of red with sweat. Craig Shakespeare will have been disappointed given that his side lost this game from a winning position. But it was a good run out for his players and there were positives for them for sure.
For Liverpool, this trip was nothing but beneficial. Young players were given opportunities and it would be difficult to pick a player who hadn’t grasped it with both hands. The maturity shown throughout the team was impressive, a sentiment echoed by the manager in his post-match interview with LFCTV. But the most pleasing thing for Jurgen Klopp will no doubt be his squad’s ability to play and win in such difficult conditions. The pressure that comes with pre-season tournaments such as this one is under-rated; a team like Liverpool being beaten by mid-table teams in pre-season could have had a negative effect on morale and sparked the press into life. Coming away as winners and with impressive performances from everyone in the squad can only have the opposite effect. Liverpool fly home from Hong Kong tonight before flying to Munich in midweek to take part in the Audi Cup. Bayern Munich, Napoli and Atletico Madrid await. We have had a small peek of what to expect in the Premier League, now we will test ourselves against some of Europe’s best before the start of the Champions League.