Liverpool pulled off an away victory in the first leg of their Champions League qualifier, to put one foot into the group stage of Europe’s elite competition.
The Reds were clearly edgy and nervous throughout, knowing that any repeat of the defensive shambles on show at Watford would not be enough to take them through, but somehow escaped with only conceding once.
Dejan Lovren and Alberto Moreno performed at their worst, but were by no means the only ones. In the first half in particular, the German side, who only finished behind Borussia Dortmund on the final day of last season in the Bundesliga, looked like scoring at every opportunity.
Moreno was caught horribly out of position on numerous occasions, but got away with it for the most part. The player that he showed he can be against Bayern Munich two weeks ago had gone back into hiding.
Serge Gnabry, though, got in behind him in the 11th minute, and was able to run directly at Lovren. The Croatian had started poorly, and pulled out of a challenge, but the winger, on loan from Bayern Munich, went down.
Referee Bjorn Kuipers, who was well below par all game, pointed to the spot, although it should never have been given. Presumably he had been given advice from the official behind the goal, who was only two yards away from the incident, but between them they made a shocking error.
Former Leicester City man Andrej Kramaric stepped up, but could only produce a pathetic attempt on goal. Simon Mignolet guessed the right way, and prevented huge scrutiny falling on the Dutch officials – their error would now be forgotten.
Shortly afterwards, Mo Salah went through on goal, but pushed the ball onto his weaker right foot and squeezed a shot wide. The ball through from Roberto Firmino, returning to his old club, was perfectly executed, but the Egyptian strangely struggled for pace and composure.
It was all Hoffenheim in terms of possession, with Liverpool limited to chances now and again on the counter. Sandro Wagner hit a shot wide of the mark and Pavel Kaderabek hit a shot over the top, with all the pressure was coming from the home side.
Liverpool were able to counter on occasion, and the opening goal came from such a route. Sadio Mane drove forward with the ball, relieving the sustained pressure, and was cynically hauled back by Ermin Bicakcic, who went into the book.
From thirty yards out, it was 18-year-old Trent Alexander-Arnold who stepped up. The young full-back was superb all night, and produced a top-drawer free-kick that curled into the bottom corner. Goalkeeper Oliver Baumann could only stand and watch.
Can Liverpool complete the job at Anfield? See for yourself and buy Liverpool tickets at www.footballticketpad.com. We are expecting a show from Klopp’s men.
Unlike at the weekend, Liverpool held the lead, and went into half-time a goal to the good. How they managed not to concede was more luck than judgement, but they had found the all-important away goal courtesy of a peach from their new right-back.
The second period continued in much the same manner. Liverpool were able to counter – Firmino should have registered on one occasion when the ball was squared by Mane – but Hoffenheim were the ones forcing the issue.
Gnabry had the ball in the net after five minutes, but was correctly brought back for offside.
After an hour, James Milner replaced Jordan Henderson. Whether he was the reason, or simply that Hoffenheim began to tire, Liverpool looked much more comfortable from that moment on.
On 74 minutes, it was an attempted Milner cross that made it 0-2. His ball aimed into the middle of the box clipped Harvard Nordtveidt’s shoulder and flew into the top corner. Milner claimed the goal, but it was certainly the Norwegian’s.
Hoffenheim knew then they had to score, but it was Liverpool who began to get chances on the break as they pushed more men forward. Referee Kuipers should have let Liverpool have an advantage when they were three-versus-one, but pulled play back for a foul, and the Reds got more and more frustrated.
Dominic Solanke, interestingly selected over Divock Origi, came on for Mane with Crystal Palace at the weekend in mind, but he could not do anything about what was to come.
Nordveidt made up for his own-goal with a looped ball to the back post, which Mark Uth swept into the corner with a super finish, with three minutes of normal time remaining.
Wagner almost got the chance to make it 2-2 but Trent Alexander-Arnold got a vital touch, and Liverpool defended well in the end.
The game somehow came to a conclusion at 2-1 to the away team, with two huge away goals and a slender advantage putting Klopp’s team in the driving seat.
Had you offered Jurgen Klopp that at the beginning, he would certainly have taken it. His side are a draw away from the Champions League proper, with the second leg to be played at Anfield next Wednesday night.
Simon Mignolet, 8 – made a couple of important stops and looked a different beast to the one at Vicarage Road.
Trent Alexander-Arold, 7 – could have done better on the goal, but did everything else right. Scorer of a memorable free-kick that will be talked about for a long time – Suarez-esque.
Joel Matip, 6 – headed a few set-pieces and crosses away and looked the better of the central defenders, although that is not saying much.
Dejan Lovren, 5 – looked shaky all night long. Did have a couple of offensive headers go close, but was far from comfortable going the other way.
Alberto Moreno, 4 – the Moreno of old: lacking any defensive awareness and positionally all over the place. Didn’t even offer anything going forward tonight.
Gini Wijnaldum, 5 – completely anonymous for large periods, and lost the ball on numerous occasions. Looked a bit lost and rusty; a shadow of the player we saw in May.
Jordan Henderson, 6 – played some brilliant passes, but was caught out a couple of times positionally. Perhaps unfortunate to leave the field when he did, but Milner made more of an impression.
Emre Can, 6 – lacks creativity but does have a lot of brute force. Defended quite well and was an outlet at times, but playing passes smoother, quicker and crisper would transform his game.
Mo Salah, 6 – wasted a couple of good chances and looked weak at times. Was very slow and laboured at times, but also showed quality.
Roberto Firmino, 6 – very tidy in the second half, but was missing a bit in the first. Did well enough in a difficult game when Liverpool did not see as much of the ball as they often do.
Sadio Mane, 7 – offered pace and width, and gave the opposition defence something to think about. Created chances, and whilst it was not his most explosive game, showed why he was Liverpool’s best player last season.
James Milner (63rd minute sub.), 7 – created the second goal and did lots of running. Changed the game in a positive way.
Dominic Solanke (84th minute sub.), n/a
Marko Grujic (89th minute sub.), n/a
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