If theme of last season was Liverpool’s formidable front three, current campaign of club rich with options is underpinned by excellence of less glamorous performers
Under Jurgen Klopp, Liverpool reacquainted with great European nights
Jurgen Klopp has always had a certain way with words.
“We scored thunderballs,” grinned a manager whose fast-and-furious brand of football has always entailed a certain amount of blood and thunder.
Paris Saint-Germain may be accustomed to more refinement, but they were beaten. A month that threatened to undo Liverpool’s ambitions has instead begun with victories that endorse their credentials as contenders. First Tottenham Hotspur, then PSG were overcome.
The battle of the 100 per centers, the sides who had made immaculate starts to the season, had a suitably dramatic ending, courtesy of Roberto Firmino.
If the sight of Sadio Mane sidestepping his way past Neymar epitomised a fearless approach Liverpool will need again in upcoming games against Chelsea, Napoli and Manchester City, it says something that Liverpool can beat a team with a £400 million (Dh1.9billion) forward line without Mohamed Salah reaching his blistering best.
And yet if the theme of last season was Liverpool’s formidable front three, the current campaign has been underpinned by the excellence of less glamorous performers.
Gini Wijnaldum, James Milner and Joe Gomez feel in a private battle for the unofficial title of this season's revelation. The perennially underrated Jordan Henderson rose to the occasion against the French champions.
“Brilliant,” his manager said.
Klopp has rationed his captain’s appearances after the World Cup. Henderson looked all the fresher and all the better as a result, snapping into challenges, dominating midfield with his purposeful and looking to launch Klopp’s beloved counter-attacks with immediate forward passes.
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Just as Mane embarrassed Neymar, Henderson offered his own symbolic moment when Kylian Mbappe tried to trick his way past the Englishman and failed.
The summer arrival of Fabinho led some to suggest that Henderson’s days as a regular were numbered. If his performance was a riposte, his supposed successor made a brief and belated debut as a late substitute.
If there may be parallels with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who was eased into Anfield life 12 months ago before excelling, the reality is that Liverpool were running out of midfielders by May.
And another of this season’s themes has been their greater strength in depth.
Much as it cost Liverpool to lose the injured Salah in the Uefa Champions League final loss to Real Madrid, they were further hindered when his replacement was a ring-rusty Adam Lallana. Now the options look more enviable.
If Firmino has felt the most irreplaceable player at Anfield, his very different deputy scored against potential European champions. Klopp believes Daniel Sturridge is in the best shape of his career. He will never be a natural at the German’s pressing game, but the finest of finishers can compensate with other qualities.
He may be required. Liverpool advanced so far in Europe last season partly because Klopp learned how to rotate. Bit-part players in autumn, such as Milner and Oxlade-Chamberlain, assumed pivotal roles later on.
Yet now the context has changed. A title challenge could bring a greater necessity to field his strongest side in England. A tougher Champions League group carries more peril than one containing Maribor and Spartak Moscow.
Liverpool have eased pressure on themselves ahead of the trip to Napoli. Better still, if they win in Italy and in the double header against Red Star Belgrade, they could make it a straight shootout between the Serie A side and the French league leaders to qualify alongside them.
As Liverpool’s final two group games precede a Merseyside derby and a meeting with Manchester United, they could benefit from qualifying with games to spare. But Klopp’s football has always been about creating memories and not mere efficiency.
In 2018, Anfield has become reacquainted with great European nights. Just ask City, Roma and now PSG.