Liverpool took a step closer to booking a place in the UEFA Champions League group stages, with a 2-1 first leg victory over Hoffenheim.
The Tuesday night encounter, held at the Rhein-Neckar-Arena, was overwhelmed by an unmistakable atmosphere of excitement and anxiety: two young and evolving sides had worked hard in their respective leagues to earn this opportunity and neither was eager to waste it.
In the early stages, however, it seemed as though that eagerness only belonged to the home team who – despite a fairly even start to the match – were creating better chances, thanks in part to Liverpool’s leaky defence; which saw Dejan Lovren give away a ninth-minute penalty.
Former Leicester City striker Andrej Kramaric stepped up to take it but was denied by a save from Simon Mignolet, the Liverpool goalkeeper keeping things level early on.
Both sides continued to threaten in attack thereafter, with the deadlock eventually being broken by an unusual source: Trent Alexander Arnold. The 18-year-old right-back whipped a free-kick into Oliver Baumann’s bottom-left corner to give the away side the lead.
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With Hoffenheim pressing hard for an equaliser to no luck, second-half substitute James Milner doubled Liverpool’s lead and their frustration, with a cross that was deflected into the back of the net by defender Havard Nordtveit. A last minute goal for the German side gave them hope for the upcoming second leg, ending the match with a scoreline of 2-1.
Here are five things we learned from the evening in Germany.
Question marks remain over Liverpool’s defence
From the moment Hoffenheim were announced as Liverpool’s playoff opponents, it was always clear that a tie against the Bundesliga outfit was going to be far from easy.
However, from the early stages of the game until late, you couldn’t help but feel as though Jürgen Klopp’s side were making a much difficult task out of playing Hoffenheim than should be the case.
Enter (again) Liverpool’s defence.
The Reds were quite composed throughout the game, knocking the ball around patiently looking to create an opening, however, once their opponents got on the ball, it was anything but.
Hoffenheim created multiple scoring chances – recording 13 shots at goal – many of which shouldn’t have been created at all, as Liverpool’s left-hand side was constantly raided, with both Alberto Moreno and Lovren struggling to impose themselves on the occasion.
For once, it can be said that they didn’t concede a goal from a set-piece, however, they hardly looked assured every time the ball flew in and Klopp may want to revise his side’s defensive strategy during these situations, as their high line leaves many weak and exploitable areas in their box.
Add to that their momentary concentration lapses, such as the one which awarded Hoffenheim their goal, and it became clear that both Liverpool’s personnel and system needs to be carefully revised this summer.
Big moments for big Migs
Some love him, some hate him, whilst others simply want to see a better goalkeeper between the Liverpool sticks in place of him.
Either way, he still remains Klopp’s first choice and in spite of his shortcomings, knows how to produce some big moments. Such was the case on Tuesday night when the Belgian produced a string of big moments to help keep his side in the tie.
Firstly, it was his ninth-minute penalty save, which kept the score goalless and extended his penalty-saving record to seven for Liverpool. Then there was the bold block to deny Serge Gnabry an equalizer in the 42nd minute and yet another fine stop following Milner’s goal to keep out Nadiem Amiri’s strike.
No matter how praise-worthy he gets, though, Mignolet will still have his critics, as the last goal of the match, which saw both him and his back four allow a potential offside call to switch them off, will testify.
Alexander-Arnold shines on European debut
Last November, Liverpool faced Championship side Leeds United in a League Cup quarter-final tie at Anfield, winning 2-0.
The first goal, which was scored in the 76th minute by Divock Origi, was assisted by a perfectly angled cross by young Trent Alexander-Arnold and with it, he showed the world that good technical ability was his forte.
The 18-year-old fully established that attribute as his own with a superbly taken free-kick that opened the scoring at the Rhein-Neckar-Arena and earned him his first goal for Liverpool, on his first night in Europe.
His overall game wasn’t disappointing either, as barring a concentration lapse in the 87th minute which gave Hoffenheim their goal, young Trent put in a mature display, combining impressive attacking intelligence and decent defensive strength.
Improve on the defensive side of his game and he could be a world beater.
Mané continues strong return from injury
What a player Sadio Mané has become since joining from Southampton!
The Senegalese attacker had an excellent first season at Anfield and despite it being cut short by injury, he is ensuring that his second season is no different in terms of standard.
Following his first competitive goal of the season last weekend at Watford, Mané continued his good form by putting in an energy-filled performance on the left side of Liverpool’s attack.
With his pace, movement and link-up play, he kept Hoffenheim’s defence consistently busy throughout the game and was easily Liverpool’s man of the match.
Long may that form continue.
Anfield second leg will be a thrilling occasion
That Liverpool take away a good scoreline advantage away from this match is a pleasing fact for anyone connected with the club, as it sets them up well for the return leg next week at Anfield.
Based on the evidence of this match, it should be quite a thrilling night, as both sides have already displayed excellent quality against each other and with Hoffenheim arguably coming out as the better attacking team from Tuesday night’s affair, Liverpool will be under pressure to return the favour in the second leg.
Klopp will certainly continue working on his defence, which will look to concede no goals on the night, as the Reds continue their march back to Europe’s elite competition.