December 9th, 2014. It may seem a random date to most people but for Liverpool, it is a significant date. It is significant because it is the last time Liverpool played a Champions League game. That night, against F.C Basel of Switzerland, things didn’t go to plan. After conceding in the first half, Steven Gerrard would equalise but it wasn’t enough to send Liverpool into the knockout stages. Thus began an exile from Europe’s top table which is nearing 3 years. Now though, the wait is nearly over. There is one last hurdle in Liverpool’s way before we can make a much-needed return to the Nou Camps and Bernabeu’s of this world. That hurdle comes in the shape of TSG 1899 Hoffenheim.
Liverpool lined up for their Champions League 3rd qualifying round 1st leg tie in Germany unchanged from the 3-3 draw with Watford at the weekend. Simon Mignolet continued in goal behind the same back line of Alberto Moreno, Dejan Lovren, Joel Matip and Trent Alexander-Arnold. Jordan Henderson again started in front of the back four with Georginio Wijnaldum and Emre Can in front of him. Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, and Roberto Firmino continued up front. Like the starting line up, the bench was also unaltered. Loris Karius, Joe Gomez, Ragnar Klavan, James Milner, Marko Grujic, Divock Origi and Dominic Solanke would all be hoping to appear as substitutes.
The 30,000 capacity crowd at the Rhein-Necker Arena were starting their first ever foray into Europe minus two of their key components from last season’s successful campaign, which saw them finish 4th in the Bundesliga. Niklas Sule and Sebastian Rudy had been snapped up by Bayern Munich after impressing last season. Bayern had loaned new signing, and former Arsenal winger, Serge Gnabry to Hoffenheim though and he would start. Another familiar face would start alongside Gnabry up front. Andrej Kramaric, formerly of Leicester City, would be part of an attacking trio that was rounded off by Sandro Wagner. Another ex-Premier League player, Havard Nordtveit, would only make the bench following a switch back to the Bundesliga on the back of a single season at West Ham United.
On an abnormally wide pitch, it was Hoffenheim who started the game as the better side in the cauldron of noise that their stadium had turned into. They looked to get amongst Liverpool and give them little time on the ball. It was a tactic that was paying off as mistakes were rife in the Liverpool midfield. They were also getting Kramaric and Gnabry on the ball as often as they could, utilising the extra width their home pitch was affording them. On 11 minutes, incident struck.
Serge Gnabry gained possession of the ball on the Hoffenheim right. He came inside and ran at Dejan Lovren. As the two met on the corner of the six-yard box, Gnabry attempted to turn Lovren. The Croatian centre half had nowhere to go and Gnabry would go down thanks to a collision with Lovrens leg. After a long look, referee Bjorn Kuipers blew his whistle and pointed to the spot. Everyone in the stadium seemed shocked, even though the Hoffenheim fans had appealed in hope. It seemed a harsh penalty on the face of it. After the benefit of a replay, those concerns weren’t unfounded. The responsibility fell to Kramaric. The Croatian stepped up but never looked confident. He ran up and hit his penalty practically straight down the middle in the hope that Simon Mignolet would go the wrong way – but he didn’t. Mignolet held his nerve, dived slightly to his left and parried the penalty powerfully away from danger. Justice had been done and the game wouldn’t be the same afterwards.
Liverpool would take the onus after the penalty. Our main outlets looked to come from out wide, with acres of space for Mane and Salah to run into if given the opportunity. Hoffenheim would attempt to get forward, but, when they did, possession would be won and simply knocked into the channels for the wide men to chase. Hoffenheim had already had a warning of the danger coming from Liverpool’s width before the pen. Alberto Moreno squared across the box for Salah but the cross was dealt with by Kevin Vogt. The ball would only go as far as Mane though, who drove at Benjamin Hubner before shooting at the legs of Oliver Baumann. 4 minutes after the penalty, it was Salah’s turn to go close.
After Emre Can intercepted a through ball by Ermin Bicakcic in the middle of the park, he played his Egyptian team-mate in. With every blue shirt in the Liverpool half and Salah also running from the right side of the halfway line, he could not be flagged offside. He had 50 yards of ground to cover before coming within a reasonable distance of the goal for a shot but was being chased down hard by Bicakcic. Showing lightning pace, Salah set off but could not maintain close enough control of the ball and lacked composure. Bicakcic was gaining on him and he was now 15 yards from goal. Salah pulled the trigger but a combination of the onrushing Baumann and the chasing Bicakcic was enough to put him off, and he pulled his shot just wide. Liverpool should have been ahead. Instead, Hoffenheim had been let off.
Salah and Mane continued to cause havoc on the wings, and Liverpool were getting to grips with play in the centre of the park. In the 35th minute, Mane had come inside and was brought down 30 yards from goal. Emre Can and the more unlikely candidate of Trent Alexander-Arnold stood over the free kick and both sized up the goal. When the referee blew his whistle, it was Alexander-Arnold who stepped up. He curled his free kick just over the wall and marginally inside Oliver Baumann’s post to give Liverpool a deserved lead. The 18-year-old right back’s delivery has been impressive since his arrival in the first team, but nobody expected him to rustle the back of the net from 30 yards. The Hoffenheim wall probably should have done better – only half of the all jumped after all. But take nothing away from Alexander-Arnold. It truly was a goal worthy of the Champions League.
Following the goal, Hoffenheim started to threaten Liverpool again. The goal had seemed to wake them up from the nightmare that had been the last 20 minutes of the game for them. They started to play rough with Liverpool again and tried to put crosses in the box. A couple of minutes before half time, the ball was hooked into the area by Kerim Demirbay from 30 yards out. Wagner and Lovren tussled for the ball, and the German striker won the battle. Off balance, he volleyed straight at Mignolet from point blank range. Mignolet must have thought the danger had passed but the ball fell to Gnabry on the edge of the box. He hit his shot first time and it brushed the post on its way wide of the goal. It was a message from the home side that they hadn’t been knocked out yet, although it had took them a 9 count to get up off the mat after the penalty miss.
When Bjorn Kuipers signalled for half time, Jurgen Klopp will undoubtedly have been delighted with his team’s first half display. Liverpool had weathered an early storm and come out the other side to take the lead. A harsh penalty had the potential to turn the tie on its head and, if Hoffenheim would have scored, there was a distinct possibility that Liverpool would have folded under the atmosphere in the stadium and the pressure from a team in the ascendancy. But the miss had knocked the wind out of the Germans’ sails. Liverpool had capitalised on this expertly and taken the game by the scruff of the neck. We deserved our lead and the goal which gave us it was an excellent one to boot. Klopp will definitely have wanted more of the same in the second period.
In the second half, Liverpool continued to show their superiority which was now turning into dominance. 2 minutes in, Sadio Mane had the ball on the Liverpool left and had Ermin Bicakcic on his back. He simply rolled the defender and sprinted clear. He got to the byline before cutting the ball back to Firmino, whose shot was smothered by Oliver Baumann. It was good goalkeeping to be fair but Firmino maybe could’ve done better. The work Brazilian striker does for his team can sometimes go unnoticed. You can watch a whole game and think that Firmino has been anonymous. It is only afterwards, when you are relaying certain events or watch the game again, that you realise the unselfishness of Liverpool’s number 9. He drops deep to allow the wingers to come narrow without congesting the box, and his flicks and balls into Mane and Salah are troublesome for the opposition – just ask Heurelho Gomes about the penalty he conceded on Saturday. Firmino would do this again tonight and his former team had no idea how to combat him.
In the 62nd minute, James Milner would replace Jordan Henderson at the base of Liverpool’s midfield but it was down the left that he would have his most important contribution of the game. After Georginio Wijnaldum was fouled in the centre circle the referee gave a free kick, which the Dutch midfielder took quickly. He played it to Firmino who, 40 yards from goal, played a well measured through ball into the left channel for Milner. He (predictably) cut back onto his right foot before curling a ball into the area. However, the ball would skid off the chest of another substitute, Havard Nordtveit, and over Oliver Baumann’s head into the Hoffenheim net. The home side tried to claim that Milner was offside but their appeals fell on deaf ears. Liverpool had now doubled their lead and looked out of sight. Given the extent of Liverpool’s supremacy in the second half, you would be forgiven for thinking that that meant game over for the tie. But you would be wrong.
Liverpool were trying to manage the game but the arrival of Mark Uth into the fray from the bench was proving problematic. He was doing a much better job of unsettling the Liverpool defence than Sandro Wagner had done, playing on the shoulder of the last man and attempting to force the back 4 towards their own goal. He had already headed over from 6 yards out when Nordtveit hit a diagonal pass towards him from the Hoffenheim half. The Liverpool defence, who had proficiently employed a high line all night, appealed for offside but the linesman never raised his flag. Uth took the ball down with his chest before firing into Simon Mignolet’s bottom left corner. Hoffenheim had got up off the mat again before being counted out. This time they were counter punching.
For the last 6 minutes of the game, the home side forged ahead. Time and time again they pumped balls into the box. Time and time again the ball was met by a Liverpool head. Hoffenheim played for corners, getting the ball wide and knocking it against the shins of the Liverpool full backs. Of course, Julian Nagelsmann’s side were the Bundesliga’s most successful team from set pieces last season, so it only makes sense they would exploit a team that is so weak at defending corners and free kicks. But Liverpool held firm like they had done for the past 90 minutes. They dealt with the aerial threat with ease until the referee blew his whistle for full time.
Many have feared this fixture since the draw for the qualifying round was made. Even before then people were saying that Hoffenheim was one of the worst teams Liverpool could have pulled out of the hat. This was a potential banana skin for Jurgen Klopp and his men, but they scaled the challenge superbly. A shaky start was overcome and resulted in a Liverpool performance that shouldn’t be played down. A lot of criticism was rightly levelled at the defence following the draw with Watford at the weekend. Liverpool had scored 3 good goals which they deserved, but 2 points were given away due to goals which, ultimately, should never have been conceded. Tonight all the deficiencies which cost Liverpool those points were not in attendance. Dejan Lovren, in particular, seemed resolute and sturdy, a much-improved performance on Saturday. Alberto Moreno also showed why Klopp continues to pick him despite his retractors. He is a threat going forward and backs up Mane to the point where the Senegalese winger can attack in a manner which causes the opposition panic. Mane himself was a different class. He had two defenders on toast all night and put in another performance. If he continues to play like this, then we could have another problem regarding a potential transfer of our star player next summer.
Of course, the tie isn’t over. Hoffenheim have to visit Anfield next Wednesday and they do so with a goal to their name which will give them hope. But this Liverpool side were simply superior tonight and there is nothing that gives a side confidence like exerting your power over an opponent to which you have already displayed your strength.