Tuesday night’s 0-2 Liverpool win in Hungary should be taken at face value. It does not mark a significant turning point in the Reds season. Instead, it was a demonstration of the undeniable quality that this squad possess.
Unfortunately, these sorts of performances have been exceptions, in an otherwise disjointed and uninspiring campaign. With Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane on the score sheet, Roberto Firmino somewhere near his nonchalant best and Thiago Alcantara controlling the midfield, it was both a comfortingly familiar performance and a glimpse of what could be.
1. Thiago is actually quite good!
It has been a less than ideal start to Merseyside life for the Spaniard. For the first time in his career he is part of a team that is struggling domestically, and looks a few steps behind the frantic pace of English football.
This was a return to home comforts; playing a side he knows intimately, in the competition he made his dance floor last season. RB Leipzig’s expansive style provided the time and space to dictate play and treat supporters to his array of incisive, forward passes.
Aside from a customary foul within the first minute, he brought defensive tenacity, making a couple of tackles in key areas. It is important to understand that he is not immune from criticism, but this display was clear evidence that he is a world class asset for Jurgen Klopp.
Thiago will be a crucial component if Liverpool are to mount an unexpected charge for a 7th European Cup.
2. The tie is far from over
Yes, the Reds have only lost one Champions League knockout tie under Jurgen Klopp. Yes, it was a (relatively) composed defensive display and yes, Liverpool have two away goals.
But RB Leipzig, despite looking shaky at the back, were mightily impressive. They are a fluid and intelligent, attacking side who pose a constant threat.
Had Dani Olmo’s diving header snuck inside Alisson’s near post in the 5th minute, it may have been a 4th consecutive loss.
Freed from the shackles of expectation, Julian Nagelsmann’s men will approach the second leg with one thing on their mind, goals.
Given the current fragility of our defence, it would be unwise to hedge your bets on another clean sheet. An early German goal on March 10th and Liverpool will be sweating.
3. The impact of the Virgil Van Dijk and Joe Gomez injuries on Liverpool cannot be underestimated
Ozan Kabak and Jordan Henderson were promising together. They passed the ball well and read the game astutely, keeping Dani Olmo and Christopher Nkunku reasonably quiet.
However, albeit talented, Kabak is a 20 year old, recently transferred from the worst side in the Bundesliga. Henderson, for all his experience in midfield, has started only a handful of games at centre back.
The lack of significance attributed, by the media, to our defensive injury crisis is frustrating because, had van Dijk and Gomez been fit, one can suspect Leipzig wouldn’t have even had a sniff and Leicester wouldn’t have scored 2 of their goals on Saturday.
The domino effect has meant a Fabinho-less midfield and, without his defensive dominance, a withheld Trent Alexander-Arnold. This has limited him to just 5 assists so far in 20/21. Off the back of record breaking assist totals in the last 2 seasons, Liverpool have lost their creative hub.
Leipzig actually created 2 more chances on the night and both goals were born from defensive errors, as opposed to being sliced apart. In a perverse way, 20/21 has been the best season of van Dijk’s career thus far.
4. Mohamed Salah is the best player at Liverpool
The Egyptian King made a promise to the Anfield faithful after the Leicester defeat that they would not allow recent results to define this season. He looks to have shouldered that responsibility entirely.
It was another Champions League knockout masterclass from Mo, exploiting the space in behind the wing backs and constantly drifting inside to cause further problems for the Leipzig defence.
His first touch was exquisite, passing precise and, when the opportunity was presented by Marcel Sabitzer, finishing lethal. Now on 24 goals for the season, he has been a force of nature in the face of adversity.
Two against United,one1 versus City and a beauty against Leicester last weekend. Salah has been doing his level best to drag his flagging team out of a hole.
A debatable interview with Spanish outlet AS and the looming interest of Real Madrid have made the forward’s future at Liverpool uncertain but, make no mistake, Mohamed Salah is our best footballer and committed to succeeding
5. Curtis Jones is here to stay
To watch Jones perform as he did, a teenager in his first UCL KO appearance, is so exciting. It was already mentioned how good Thiago was on the night, but the Scouser was even better.
There is a composure and maturity to his game that just relaxes the supporters. He is efficient in possession and smart out of it, with the ability to win headers or 50/50s in the middle of the park and an excellent appreciation for defensive position.
Then, there is the streak of flair, displayed on Tuesday by a turn in his own half that saw him drop a Leipzig midfielder without touching the ball.
Every time Klopp has given him more responsibility, Jones has risen to the challenge, unfazed. He actually seems to play better the greater the occasion, which is a precious attribute.
At 19, the world is still 4 or 5 years away from witnessing the true potential of Liverpool’s number 17 and it will be fascinating to watch him develop.