The game in Hoffenheim last week, the return fixture to this one, marked the return of Liverpool to Europe’s top table. At first it looked like we may stumble at the first hurdle, but Andrej Kramaric’s missed penalty made the hosts uneasy and Liverpool managed to capitalise on that to claim a deserved victory in the end. On the night, Liverpool just about shaded it and were narrowly better. Tonight however, that simply wasn’t the case.
Jurgen Klopp organised his red machine so that it was unchanged from the side that won in Germany last week. Simon Mignolet is still refusing to give anyone else a crack at claiming the number 1 goalkeeper’s shirt. After being rested for the 1-0 win over Crystal Palace on Saturday, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Alberto Moreno, Dejan Lovren, Mohamed Salah and Emre Can returned to the starting line-up in place of Joe Gomez, Andy Robertson, Ragnar Klavan, Daniel Sturridge and James Milner who all dropped to the bench alongside Dominic Solanke and Loris Karius. The visitors made two changes to their starting line, bringing Julian Geiger and Havard Nordtveit in for Lukas Rupp and Ermin Bicakcic.
Liverpool started quickly and immediately looked to impose themselves on the away side. Hoffenheim were closed down relentlessly in midfield and, when Liverpool won the ball, Mane and Salah were immediately released to unleash havoc down the flanks. Twice in the first 10 minutes Liverpool were put clean through on goal, twice they were thwarted by Oliver Baumann. It seemed Hoffenheim’s goal was on borrowed time. But the charmed life of the Anfield Road End net came to an abrupt end in the tenth minute.
Roberto Firmino won the ball in midfield after making another one of his drop offs from up front. Sadio Mane immediately burst forward from deep to exploit the disorganisation of the Hoffenheim back three. Firmino slid in Mane, who now looked clean through until Nordtveit managed to catch him up. Mane kept his composure to come back inside, to some groans inside the stadium. But Emre Can was on the overlap. With a touch of brilliance, Mane backheeled the ball into the path of his German team-mate. Can attempted to pass the ball into the opposite corner, but a deflection off Kevin Vogt sent Baumann the wrong way and Liverpool into a 1-0 lead. Anfield exploded with noise as Can rushed to celebrate in front of the fans. It seemed that the Champions League was now in touching distance. 8 minutes later, we had one foot in the group stages.
Hoffenheim attempted to regain a foothold in the game and retain some possession but Liverpool were tight and stubborn. From a Hoffenheim throw on the halfway line, Emre Can came forward before playing the ball to Alberto Moreno on the left. Moreno then played it to Firmino on the left wing, who cut in and squared towards the penalty spot. Georginio Wijnaldum was waiting and his side foot shot rebounded off the post onto the left boot of Mo Salah, who converted from 6 yards out. There was a momentary look towards the linesman for confirmation that the Egyptian was onside, which he was, before all inside the stadium could celebrate with confidence. It now seemed like Liverpool were there. That was near enough confirmed after 20 minutes.
A Hoffenheim player went down in the Liverpool half and required treatment. After giving the ball back to Liverpool, Hoffenheim will now wish they hadn’t. From left back, Moreno passed it to Firmino who played it short to Wijnaldum. From inside his own half, Wijnaldum played a devastating first time ball through a 20 yard gap between Nordtveit and Vogt in the German sides backline. Sadio Mane ate up the ground to expose the defensive mishap. He held the ball waiting for support on the left of the Hoffenheim box, which eventually arrived in the shape of Roberto Firmino. Mane played another exquisite backheel to the Brazilian, who chipped a ball towards the back post which was begging to be volleyed home – and so it was by Emre Can from 6 yards out. The intensity of the celebrations that ensued were personified by Jurgen Klopp, who ran down the touchline pointing towards his side as if to say, “that is what we can do!” Hoffenheim’s hopes of qualifying for their first Champions League campaign had been blown away inside 20 minutes by this atomic Liverpool frontline. They were simply overwhelmed and Liverpool were like a lion who had smelled blood.
After the initial shellshock though, Hoffenheim appeared to wake up. Serge Gnabry was played into the area by Andrej Kramaric and was clean through. He lifted his shot over Simon Mignolet but watched as it dropped just wide of the Kop goal. On 28 minutes though, they would have their own breakthrough. Sloppy play by Dejan Lovren at the back saw the ball land at the feet of Kramaric. With the Liverpool back 4 seemingly in temporary disarray, Kramaric slid in Mark Uth, on as a tactical substitute, on the right of the box. Being played on by Moreno, Uth took one touch out his feet before hitting a low shot across Mignolet and into the bottom corner. Maybe the door wasn’t shut on Hoffenheim. Could they kick it open and cause an unlikely comeback?
For the remainder of the half both sides continued to look for goals. Emre Can and Sadio Mane both came close for Liverpool, whilst Mark Uth and Serge Gnabry had chances to decrease the deficit. For as shaky as Liverpool could be at the back though, they were equally destructive going forward. This was embodied by one man in red – Alberto Moreno. When defending, Moreno is prone to losing his position too easily and not being aware of what is going on around. He can get his team-mates into trouble simply by not taking note of the movement of the defence across the pitch to cover space. But going forward he is central to all that was good about Liverpool. His service to the attacking players, pace in transition from defence into attack, and his presence on the left wing was enough to worry the opposition. When Mane cut inside, you could put your house on Alberto Moreno backing him by occupying the wing and giving the defenders a decision to make. You get the feeling that the first choice left back position will be a straight shoot out between Moreno and Andy Robertson this season. The man who gets it will be the first for whom the penny drops defensively.
When the referee blew for half time, Jurgen Klopp will undoubtedly have been the happier of the two managers. His side had obviously executed his gameplan to near perfection and were producing some breathtaking football. The goals they had scored were of sublime quality and it seemed that Hoffenheim had no answers. Julian Nagelsmann had made a tactical switch which had temporarily paid off for him and gained a goal for his side. But it hadn’t solved the quandary of how to handle Liverpool’s attacking machine. They were a different class of which Nagelsmann’s defence just could not withstand.
When the second half kicked off, Liverpool carried on where they left off. Hoffenheim reassumed their place on the back foot as the home side swarmed forward again. Matip, Wijnaldum, Mane and Alexander-Arnold all signified Liverpool’s intent with shots which all failed to extend their team’s lead. But, on 63 minutes, Roberto Firmino would add gloss to the scoreline. Kerim Demirbay played the ball back to Kevin Vogt from the midfield. Jordan Henderson sensed a chance and chased down the centre half. Not fancying the challenge from the Mackem skipper, Vogt dipped a toe into the tackle which wasn’t strong enough. Henderson was on him and stood his ground to win the ball. He came within 15 yards of goal before squaring to Firmino who had the easy task of tapping into an empty net. 4-1. Surely game over now.
From there, the game became attritional. Hoffenheim began to compete again sensing that Liverpool had taken their foot off the gas slightly. Their fans certainly didn’t think the tie was over, despite the 6-2 scoreline, and remained in fine voice all night. Demirbay had an attempt of his own off target before Hoffenheim were given another glimmer of hope. Andrej Kramaric collected the ball on the Hoffenheim left and curled it towards the penalty spot. A collection of red and white shirts rose to meet it, but it was Sandro Wagner’s head that nodded it into the back of Mignolet’s net. It was a disappointing goal to concede due to its ease and one that Mignolet will not be pleased about, but it’s a goal that was ultimately a consolation. The game petered out after Hoffenheim’s attempt at a comeback and, when the referee finally blew his whistle, there was a roar of joy around Anfield. Liverpool are back in the big time. Liverpool are back in the Champions League.
In his post-match press conference, Klopp was delighted but defiant. He said that people may mock him for being over the moon about winning a qualifier, but that it was a the culmination of 14 months work which everyone involved in the first team had been striving towards. He said that his main aim for the past year and a bit was to get his team into the Champions League and, now they had done that, he was excited at the prospect of pitting his side against Europe’s best.
Klopp is right. A lot of people will criticise for the exuberance of the celebrations at the final whistle. Klopp is also right in saying that this is what everyone at the club, fans included, have been hoping for since his arrival. The ultimate aim for this club is to win the Premier League, that should never be forgotten. But patience is needed and gradual progress is better than instant success. Beating Hoffenheim over two legs of a Champions League qualifier is a small step on the road to a greater achievement. Jurgen Klopp has a penchant for creating teams which are greater than the sum of its parts. He turns potential into star quality. At the moment, you could say that you can see both of those claims in this Liverpool side. The future is certainly bright.