Anfield is famous for European nights. It is a stadium steeped in history. You look towards the Kop end and you can see the shadows of David Fairclough running clean through on goal against Saint Ettiene in 1977. You remember the bodies piling towards the front of the stand when Steven Gerrard scored that thunderbolt against Olympiakos in December 2004. You hear the echoes of crowds roars after Luis Garcia’s ‘ghost goal’ against Chelsea that same season, the same goal that sent Liverpool into the final of the Champions League in Istanbul. The return of the Champions League brings with it hope for Liverpool fans that these nights could be replicated under Jurgen Klopp. Every Journey starts with a single step though. The first step on our road to Kyiv came last night against Sevilla.
Going into the game there were a couple of notable absentees from the weekends 5-0 defeat to Manchester City for Liverpool. In came Liverpool’s designated Champions League goalkeeper Loris Karius, Joe Gomez and Dejan Lovren. Out went Simon Mignolet, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Ragnar Klavan, the latter in particular suffering an ordeal on Saturday afternoon. Mohamed Salah was a doubt due to illness but was deemed well enough to retain his place on the right wing. Andy Robertson made the bench alongside the dropped Mignolet, Klavan, Daniel Sturridge, James Milner, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and the returning Philippe Coutinho. It was potentially Coutinho’s first appearance since he announced his intention to leave the club in the summer and reaction from the fans was still to be seen. It would make for fascinating viewing if he was to enter the fray at any point.
Sevilla lined up basically as the Spanish press expected them to. New signings Gabriel Mercado, Simon Kjaer, Jesus Navas and Joaquin Correa all started. Ever Banega started too following his return to the club in the summer from Inter Milan. Familiar names for Sevilla included Luis Muriel, who was formerly a target of Brendan Rodgers during his time in the Anfield dugout. Ex-Reading man Daniel Carrico made the bench. He had a torrid time at the Madejski but has carved a successful career for himself in Andalucia, and can count himself unlucky to have not made the starting XI last night. Another name many will recognise is that of Steven N’Zonzi. Formerly of Blackburn Rovers and Stoke City, N’Zonzi has been a major success for Sevilla and caught the eye of Juventus and Monaco in the summer.
You hope that your team starts games tight and sees out the first 15 minutes of any game by feeling out the opposition. But isn’t what happened here. The number of defensive errors in the build up was shocking. First, Joe Gomez gave the ball away down the right flank. Then, Emre Can failed to make a tackle after slowing down to get himself in position. Finally, as the ball was fizzed across the box by Correa, Dejan Lovren completely miskicked what should’ve been an easy clearance. He will have hoped that the space behind him had been left vacant. However, Wissam Ben Yedder had ghosted into the box unchecked and had the simple task of sorting his feet out and tapping into an empty Kop net from 4 yards out. 5 minutes gone and Liverpool were 1-0 down at home in their first Champions League game in 3 years. It was a nightmare start.
Liverpool responded well to going behind. Mo Salah and Sadio Mane had the beating of their full backs and were tearing them apart time and time again. But they found no runners beyond them when they were clear. Nonetheless, the Reds were seeing more of the ball and creating chances. Roberto Firmino smashed a header over the bar from 7 yards out, and both Emre Can and Sadio Mane had shots saved by Sergio Rico. In the 20th minute though Liverpool were level.
After a sustained period with the ball, Georginio Wijnaldum finally made his move. He sprinted towards the Anfield Road End goal before cutting back. He laid it off to Jordan Henderson, who slid it to Alberto Moreno on the left. Moreno played a one-two with Henderson, whose ball back to the Spanish left back was perfectly weighted. Moreno squared it across the box where Roberto Firmino was waiting and tapped home from 4 yards. Anfield was now rocking again and Liverpool were back in the game. A minute later Liverpool burst forward again after Correa was dispossessed by Gomez. Mane drove at the defence and played in Emre Can. The German was clean through and just needed to hit the target, but dragged his shot wide. Liverpool smelled blood.
Jurgen Klopp’s side continued to control the play. Sevilla were beginning to get wound up and Gabriel Mercado earned a yellow card after raking the heels of Roberto Firmino on the touchline. They were practically camped in their own half and, on 36 minutes, Liverpool took the lead. We had the ball on the edge of the Sevilla box but WIjnaldum was dispossessed and it fell to Steven N’Zonzi. Mo Salah refused to give up the fight though and came back snapping at the heels of the big Frenchman. He retained the ball and knocked N’Zonzi to the ground in the process. The surrounding Sevilla players protested but their protests were in vain. Salah took one touch as the opposition defence continued to back off. Then, from 20 yards, he pulled the trigger. The ball deflected wildly off the boot of Simon Kjaer and past the prone body of Sergio Rico, who had already dived low, into the centre of the net. It was no more than Liverpool deserved.
With Liverpool looking comfortable in the lead, it wasn’t too long before the game had its next flashpoint. Dejan Lovren played a long ball forward which was flicked on by Alberto Moreno on the Liverpool left to Sadio Mane. He tried to flick it past Nicolas Pareja and the Argentine handled it. The crowd screamed for a penalty but before they had finished Pareja had pulled Mane down. They didn’t need to protest for that as the referee blew his whistle for a spot kick. Roberto Firmino stepped up – surely the game would be over as a contest if he converted. He ran up and sent the ‘keeper the wrong way, but the ball hit the post and deflected clear. The crowd started singing Firmino’s name but the disappointment, from player and fans, was palpable.
Liverpool weren’t deterred though and forged more chances for themselves. Georginio Wijnaldum got in first but his square ball was turned behind by Kjaer. Then, on the stroke of half time, Liverpool broke from a Sevilla free kick. Mo Salah raced away from Sergio Escudero and cut inside before playing the ball to Firmino on the edge of the box. He held it up and played in the onrushing Alberto Moreno down the Liverpool left. Moreno took one touch and shot, but Rico was equal to it. If he had squared then it would have been a tap in for Salah to score his second. There was no time to retain possession. The referee blew his whistle to signal the end of the first period.
Jurgen Klopp will have been pleased with his side’s attitude at half time. They had gone behind and, after a crushing defeat at the weekend, it would have been easy for heads to drop. Instead, Liverpool were patient and stuck to their game plan. They pulled Sevilla out wide and were ripping them to shreds on the wings. Salah and Mane were creating chances, but Gomez and Moreno were also playing their part in the Liverpool attacks with the former having opportunities to score himself. That said, there had been a couple of hairy moments for Liverpool at the back. Sevilla had found a way through on a couple of occasions and the manner in which the goal was scored will annoy everyone involved. Klopp will have hoped that his defence will have had their heads screwed on for the second half and that his forwards continued to attack the opposition with the pace and incision they had shown before the break.
The second half got off to slow start. The slow start became a slow game and the tie was becoming attritional. Sevilla were struggling to get numbers forward effectively and, although Joaquin Correa was showing some neat touches, they were failing to create any openings for themselves. Wissam Ben Yedder had been isolated and nullified by the partnership of Matip and Lovren. Liverpool were playing on instinct. They were cutting into their opposition but the final ball was proving elusive. Chances were becoming few and far between for both sides and the most entertaining aspect of the second half quickly seemed as if it would be Sevilla’s manager, Eduardo Berrizo, being sent to the stand for throwing the ball away as Liverpool gained a throw in. Then it happened. Luis Muriel, on as a sub, won the ball from Joe Gomez and drove towards the Liverpool defence. He slipped it to Correa. The ball was slightly behind Correa but, with a fantastic touch, he dragged it into his path and curled it beyond Loris Karius. Questions will be asked again of the Liverpool defence, especially the centre halves, who left a massive gap for Correa to run into, and Alberto Moreno, who inexplicably appeared to be running away from the danger.
Liverpool forged ahead looking to take the game by the scruff of the neck. Philippe Coutinho was brought on in an effort by Klopp to add some extra creativity to the centre of his midfield. Coutinho will have been anxious regarding the reaction of the fans but needn’t have worried, as he was given a welcoming reception upon his entry to the action. Daniel Sturridge was also brought on perhaps with the thought that he could spearhead attacks, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain replaced Mohamed Salah maybe with the Egyptian’s illness in mind.
Liverpool were patient going forward but remained panicky at the back and in midfield. Whenever the ball came into their half, the defenders in red would immediately lose their cool and make poor decisions. Joel Matip skewed a simple clearance straight up into the air and it took for Luis Muriel to waste the opportunity in order for danger to be cleared. In the last minute, a long clearance from Pareja was taken out the air brilliantly by Muriel. He held off the attentions of Matip and Gomez and was clean through on goal, but could only find the advertising hoarding. It was a massive let off for Liverpool. A poor second half for the Reds was compounded when Joe Gomez was sent off in the final minute of injury time for a second bookable offence. When the referee blew his whistle for full time, the mood around Anfield was of acceptance and annoyance. Everyone knew Liverpool should have won the game but they could just as easily have lost it.
If you had given Liverpool this game next or on matchday three, then a 2-2 result at home to Sevilla would have looked like a decent result. They are probably our rivals to top the group so a draw is probably a fair outcome on paper. A draw on matchday one, especially given how the game panned out, looks much worse, however. The goals conceded again exposed Liverpool’s defensive frailties and will inflame neutrals. We had regained control of the game after Ben Yedder gave Sevilla the lead but gifted them their equaliser and very nearly a winner. It was clear that the defence, in particular, are low on confidence and it looks like it may take a while for Klopp’s boys to shake off their City drubbing.