September 19, 2018
In the blink of a damaged eye Roberto Firmino brought Anfield the victory its team deserved and the finale an enthralling contest merited. He also reinforced Jürgen Klopp’s point about not wishing to swap Liverpool’s front three for those of Paris Saint-Germain.
Liverpool made it six wins out of six games this season with a stoppage-time winner that epitomised why they held the edge over the French champions. It was converted owing to the outstanding quality of Firmino and created thanks to the relentless industry of James Milner who, even in the 92nd minute and despite the setback of conceding an 83rd-minute equaliser, harried Kylian Mbappé off the ball on the edge of the PSG penalty area to launch one last, telling attack.
“Nobody is irreplaceable,” said Klopp of Firmino’s likely absence before the game. His players are doing their utmost to prove that theory. From Milner to Andy Robertson, Trent Alexander-Arnold to Georginio Wijnaldum, Liverpool possess players with both the quality and prodigious work rate to make Klopp’s demanding gameplans succeed. Thomas Tuchel has enviable individual talent at his disposal but not the collective industry or cohesive unit to realise the grand ambitions of the club’s owners in Qatar.
Neymar sought out Firmino for a hug in the moments before kick-off. It was Liverpool’s initial misfortune that the Brazilian superstar had to go to their substitutes’ bench to find him. The eye injury that Firmino sustained at Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday – an abrasion to the cornea – deprived him of his usual place at the heart of Liverpool’s forward line from the start. It also cost Klopp the services of the player who, more than any other, embodies the “offensive defending” the Liverpool manager identified as key to their victory at Wembley and to stopping the dominant force in France.
Thankfully for Liverpool, Firmino’s teammates worked tirelessly from the front to limit the opportunities for PSG to release their formidable attacking trio. In doing so they generated the tempo of a knockout tie, with the Anfield atmosphere to match, and the sight of Sadio Mané dispossessing Mbappé deep in the Liverpool half typified the hosts’ relentless approach. As did that of Juan Bernat beating Mohamed Salah in the tackle and trying to launch a quick counterattack, only to turn and pass back to his keeper as four red shirts had closed down his options. Daniel Sturridge, Firmino’s replacement, also gave a selfless performance to make life uncomfortable for the PSG defenders. It is not a situation they are accustomed to in the French league. Salah was subdued by comparison and at fault for PSG’s second goal but his defensive work could not be faulted.
Inevitably, given the breathtaking speed and ability in the PSG ranks, the visiting threat could not be nullified completely and Klopp’s head dropped several times when Neymar and Ángel di María escaped behind the Liverpool midfield. “If you let them pass in specific areas they decide alone if they score or not because of the mix of speed and technical abilities,” he had warned. “You have to avoid these situations.” His defence was sharp, however, and PSG had tested Alisson only once before Thomas Meunier reduced a two-goal deficit in the 40th minute.
The 25-year-old was making his Champions League debut for Liverpool with Klopp having decided against rotating his goalkeepers in the group stage for a second season running. His first save was routine from Neymar, who broke away from Alexander-Arnold before shooting straight at his compatriot. Edinson Cavani was well placed for the rebound but Virgil van Dijk was quick to apply enough pressure for the Uruguay striker to scuff his effort. There was little the Liverpool No 1 could do to deny Meunier, who finished expertly after Di María’s cross ricocheted off Robertson.
Robertson was making his seventh Champions League appearance for Liverpool and Alexander-Arnold, at only 19, his 13th. In keeping with last season’s run to the final – and the 100% start to this season’s Premier League campaign – they were again crucial to pinning back the opposition and showed that illustrious reputations count for little. Mbappé was kept largely on the margins of the contest by the Scotland captain’s intelligent marking and recovery strength. Alexander-Arnold had Neymar and Di María to contend with yet still provided a constant threat of his own. It was his cross that ultimately fell to Robertson to set up Sturridge for the opening goal.
In terms of offensive defending, Klopp could not have wished for more from his team. Milner was dominant while the new central defensive partnership of Van Dijk and Joe Gomez were equal to PSG’s rare breaks until Neymar launched one late run and Mbappé applied the finish. It was not enough to deny Liverpool and Firmino, however. They are up and running again.