Match day one proved to be a minor disappointment for Liverpool. Sevilla are a decent side and a draw was probably a good result on the face of it. However the anticipation of the opening Champions League fixture after waiting so long to see the return of Europe’s premier competition to Anfield meant that anything other than a win against the Spaniards wouldn’t be good enough. So it proved when Joaquin Correa was allowed to waltz through the defence and equalise for Sevilla with twenty minutes to go. This game against Spartak Moscow would be one where excuses wouldn’t suffice if a win wasn’t attained.
Spartak lined up with a few notable names in their side. Salvatore Bocchetti carved a decent career for himself in Italy and has been doing the same in Russia for around five years now. Serdar Tasci was a key figure for the successful Stuttgart sides of the late 2000’s but left a couple of years ago for pasture new in Moscow. Mario Pasalic is currently on loan from Chelsea. He has played internationally for Croatia but, like a lot of Chelsea loanees, is yet to make a first-team appearance in West London. Lining up as a lone forward was former Shakhtar Donetsk and A.C Milan striker, Luiz Adriano.
Liverpool made a couple of alterations to their starting XI following the weekend’s win over Leicester City at the King Power Stadium. Loris Karius, Liverpool’s assigned Champions League goalkeeper, donned the gloves in place of Simon Mignolet. Trent Alexander-Arnold took Joe Gomez’s place to line up alongside Dejan Lovren, Joel Matip and Alberto Moreno in defence. A midfield three of Emre Can, Philippe Coutinho and Jordan Henderson started this game. Georginio Wijnaldum missed out in place of Sadio Mane, who started as part of an attacking three with Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah.
The game started with a tentative pace as both sides took the opportunity to feel each other and settle their nerves. Trent Alexander-Arnold had the best chance of the opening stages when he flicked the ball to Mo Salah on the right side of the Spartak box. Alexander-Arnold ran onto the return, took it on his chest and volleyed wide to send the home side an early warning. Spartak were not seeing much of the ball and Luiz Adriano seemed isolated up front. Liverpool were cutting the opposition off easily and started to create more chances. Sadio Mane won a free kick in the centre circle Jordan Henderson played quickly into the left channel for Salah. He ran onto it but his shot was easily collected by goalkeeper, Artem Rebrov. He gave the ball away from his throw out though and Moreno whipped a beautiful ball in Firmino to head goalwards with power, but Rebrov was equal to it and the rebound from Salah. Spartak’s back five were starting to leave gaps which Mo Salah in particular was looking to exploit. But it was Spartak who would take the lead.
On 22 minutes Philippe Coutinho gave away a silly foul 25 yards from goal. After taking their time to designate a taker, it was eventually Fernando who was tasked with the job and he stepped up to curl it beyond the wall and past Loris Karius. The Brazilian central midfielder sprinted towards the crowd to celebrate his undeserved goal. Questions will rightly be asked about Liverpool, from the concession of the soft free kick to Karius’ failure to save a shot that was nowhere near the corner. Liverpool thought they had drawn level immediately when Alexander-Arnold swung in a cross which Mane flung himself into to score with his head, but the assistant referee flagged late to give offside. Liverpool needed a way back into this game and it needed to be quick before Spartak gained a foothold. Eight minutes later we would be level.
Spartak had sat deep looking to contain and frustrate Liverpool but hadn’t counted on our ability to play the ball around at pace. Emre Can had the ball on the right and passed it Henderson in the middle, who lifted it towards Coutinho on the left side of the box. Fernando cut it out but the ball to Mane who slid in Coutinho. Coutinho was now clean through and took one touch before firing past Rebrov from 6 yards. Liverpool had been rewarded for patient build-up play and had the goal they deserved.
Liverpool were now controlling the game as Spartak once again struggled to breach the white backline in front of them. Liverpool were carving chances too, the closest they came to scoring was when Jordan Henderson’s wonderful ball fell to a surprised Roberto Firmino and dribbled into the arms of Rebrov. We had another chance on the stroke of half time when we broke with a five on two situation in our favour. Alexander-Arnold drove down the middle and played in Jordan Henderson to his right. Henderson opted to square across the face of goal instead of shooting. Sadio Mane slid in despairingly and Mo Salah pass it right back across goal from an obscenely tight angle, but the referee had blown for offside by that point with Sadio Mane the perpetrator. Liverpool were having most of the ball but were met with a red wall anytime they go near the opposition box. Spartak had reverted to their deep defensive line and Liverpool were being contained.
As the referee blew for half-time it will have been Spartak who would have gone in the better side. Their manager, Massimo Carrera, had set his side up to frustrate Liverpool and sit deep. They had done that by and large, and went in level for their efforts. Jurgen Klopp will have been disappointed in the manner of the goal his side conceded. It was a silly free-kick to give away and Loris Karius should have done better to save it. The response from Liverpool will have been pleasing however as we were only behind for eight minutes. He will have been looking for his side to probe Spartak further, pull them around the pitch and create space for runners in the second half.
The second half kicked off with Liverpool looking to take the onus and they had early chances. Dejan Lovren had a bullet header parried away by Rebrov which would have been ruled out for offside anyway. Philippe Coutinho also went close from a free kick which Rebrov got down low to save awkwardly. Moments later Sadio Mane burst through the defence and played a well weighted ball into Mo Salah. He stretch to latch onto it but clattered into Artem Rebrov, a collision which would ultimately end his game. Liverpool couldn’t take advantage of the key change though. A slow game was now fading out to the tune of a 1-1 draw. Spartak were doing a good job of forcing Liverpool to play in front of their backline and Liverpool had no answer to their adversary’s deep back five and compact midfield. Daniel Sturridge replaced Sadio Mane, with Klopp looking to use Sturridge’s trickery to get through but it was like threading through a brick wall. There was hardly any space between the lines for us to play in and that suited Spartak perfectly in their apparent aim to gain a point.
Liverpool were now over-thinking every ball as the clock ticked slowly down towards another disappointing draw. First Daniel Sturridge took too many touches in the box instead of releasing Mo Salah on the edge, then Moreno tried to chip a ball t the back post instead of smashing it across the face of goal for Sturridge to tap in. Liverpool needed something inspirational at this point to claim a win. In the 89th minute it looked like they might have had it. Liverpool had sustained some pressure on the Spartak defence and managed to put another ball into the box. It was cleared as far as Henderson who lifted it into Sturridge on the corner of the 6 yard box. He hit it first time on the volley but fired over. He looked towards the assistant referee, hoping to see a flag for offside to spare his blushed, but one was not forthcoming and it has to go down as a disastrous miss.
As the game crept into stoppage time Liverpool continued to create clear cut chances. First, Roberto Firmino was released down the left by Moreno but his square cross played just behind Mo Salah to deny the Egyptian a sure tap in. Then, not even a minute later, Alexander-Arnold sent in a cross from the right which Salah got on the end of in the 6 yard box. However Alexandr Selekhov was equal to the header and denied Salah a winner. When the referee finally blew for full time it signalled the end of a frustrating night for The Reds.
This will go down as two points dropped for Jurgen Klopp. He will be frustrated with his sides inability to break down much inferior opposition. It was obvious from the very start that Spartak had turned up to sit deep and defend in the hope of claiming a draw or snatching a win. The fact they had achieved their objective was mostly down to abject finishing. The result is not a disaster for Liverpool, that has to be made abundantly clear. Many will condemn this result on many fronts but Liverpool still have favourable fixtures to look forward to, including the weakest team in the group, Maribor, home and away. It will be the manner of the performance once again and the costly individual errors which will make people look back on this game with a tinge of bitterness.