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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

Liverpool's defenders, the unlikely heroes against Manchester City, left with plenty to talk about

Conceding one goal against City over 180 minutes played a key role in Liverpool's progression to the Uefa Champions League semi-finals

History, Winston Churchill famously said, is written by the victors. It is also discussed by them. Deep inside the Etihad Stadium on Tuesday night, the heroes of Liverpool’s draining rearguard action were reliving a display of astonishing defiance.

Andrew Robertson was talking to anyone who asked, a man relegated with Hull City last year happy to talk about the prospect of a Uefa Champions League semi-final.

Trent Alexander-Arnold, the teenager who had appeared a possible weak link but acquitted himself superbly in either leg against Leroy Sane, was a man in demand.

The multilingual Dejan Lovren expressed surprise at how many times he was asked to be interviewed in French, but acquiesced on every occasion. Virgil van Dijk was still talking long after others had taken their leave.

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The Dutchman cost £75 million (Dh390.9m), a world record for a centre-back, but together they still amounted to the unlikely lads, the supposedly fragile Liverpool back four who kept Manchester City to one goal in 180 minutes. That resilience was all the more unexpected after they conceded in the second minute on Tuesday.

“Over the two games we have been brave, and when you are brave, the luck goes with you,” Lovren said. Certainly Sane had a goal wrongly ruled out, just as Bernardo Silva came perilously close with a shot that hit the post. Yet Liverpool passed a test of character.

Lovren is a case in point, a man who has sometimes seemed to struggle with the pressure of playing for Liverpool. He has emerged as a leader of late, a role he took on at the interval. “I was shouting a bit at half-time. I told the lads to wake up because it was not good enough,” said the Croatian.

Klopp’s contribution was different, the man who brought heavy-metal football to Anfield telling his charges to press the mute button at the Etihad.

“The manager said during the half-time interval: ‘Do you know what it feels like when the fans of City fall silent? Get them silent with a goal,’” revealed midfielder Gini Wijnaldum.

Mohamed Salah got the precious away goal that meant City needed to score five. The Egyptian’s 39th of the season was taken with preternatural composure. “Most players would have put their laces through it and shot as hard as possible,” Wijnaldum said. “He doesn’t. He goes for the dink. Who does that?”

Yet Salah’s strike was also proof of Klopp’s nous. It is easy to see the animated German purely as an exuberant motivator, but his input was part psychological, part tactical. He told Lovren and Van Dijk to push up at half-time. He had already switched Salah from the right to the central striking berth. It put him directly up against Nicolas Otamendi, who is still scarred from his September introduction to the Egyptian.

Pep Guardiola had spent the first 135 minutes of the tie trying to keep Otamendi away from Salah, even moving Vincent Kompany to be the left-sided centre-back in the first leg.

Now, confronted with the prospect of leaving Otamendi one on one with Salah, Guardiola withdrew Fernandinho into defence in the second half, denying him a holding midfielder, the orchestrator of many an attack. Meanwhile, Klopp swapped James Milner for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, so the older man, a workaholic who ran 13.5 kilometres, came to the right of midfield to help Alexander-Arnold.

Now Liverpool had a platform to play. They survived the City onslaught, delivered two goals – a flummoxed Otamendi gifting Roberto Firmino the winner – and, with the unlikely lads at the back and the attack-minded Wijnaldum masquerading as a defensive midfielder progressed to a first Champions League semi-final in 10 years. No wonder they had much to talk about.

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