Three years is a very long time, very long time indeed when you spend it waiting for Champions League football to return to Anfield.
After securing fourth place in the 2016/17 Premier League contest, Liverpool went on to play TSG 1899 Hoffenheim, the former club of Roberto Firmino and the team that also finished fourth in the Bundesliga.
Saturday saw the Reds fall to a 3-3 draw in the dying seconds of the league opener away to Watford, but Jurgen Klopp chose the same line-up nevertheless.
On the other hand, Julian Nagelsmann, the home team’s 30-year-old head coach, went for the modern 3-4-2-1 formation, with the following personnel:
The game immediately opened up, with its flow shifting constantly from the word go. Liverpool started on the front foot, but it didn’t take long for Hoffenheim to push them back and start creating problems. Five minutes in, Alberto Moreno made a mistake which could have had a much worse outcome, but Joel Matip was there to set the matter straight. Just two minutes later, Simon Mignolet was called into action and he did well to save the skin of Dejan Lovren. But only 60 more seconds had passed when Moreno employed Salah at the other end but the Egyptian’s shot was blocked and then Baumann saved one from Sadio Mane.
10 minutes, another blunder by Moreno, this time positional, left Lovren in a very difficult situation where he had to stop Serge Gnabry one-on-one inside the box. The Arsenal loanee managed to nutmeg him and then fall down after some contact. Penalty.
Andrej Kramaric, formerly of Leicester City, stepped up, and took as poor a penalty as you’re ever likely to see as Mignolet effortlessly punched away the ball that came straight at him with very little pace.
From that moment on, something snapped in the will of the home team and they seemed dejected and not showing nearly enough focus. A severe punishment could have arrived for them three minutes later when Vogt’s mistake allowed Salah to go through and have a one-on-one with the keeper, but the winger directed the ball onto his weaker right foot whilst enabling Vogt to catch up, and then his weak shot went wide of the target.
Moreno was plainly having a howler of a game, and it’s fair to say that his performance really hurt his chances of retaining the left-back spot for the following games. His mistake after 23 minutes allowed Hoffenheim to cause real trouble again, but Wagner ruined it with a shot that was both hasty and inaccurate. Two minutes later it was Liverpool captain’s turn to make a mistake but the home team again failed to cause any real concern.
As time went by, the Reds slowly got a grip on the direction of the game, taking advantage of Hoffenheim’s lack of drive and confidence.
With half an hour gone, Mane went past his man with a great little dribble but then misplaced his pass. Two minutes later Trent Alexander-Arnold won the ball high up, then he lost it having entered the box, and then he blocked an attempted clearance in such a way that Baumann only just managed to keep the ball out of his net.
And then the moment we’d been waiting for actually happened. Mane broke through the middle, giving his marker no choice but to bring him down and pick up a yellow card for it. Alexander-Arnold took the free-kick ahead of Moreno, Mane and Emre Can. His shot had something of Luis Suarez in it, as it went low but over the wall, and then curved down towards the bottom corner, slightly missing the post on the inside and leaving the keeper rooted to the spot, staring in disbelief.
Thus the Reds took a well-deserved lead in the 35th minute, and the significance of it being an away goal can hardly be over-emphasized. Just two minutes after they could have easily added another when Henderson intercepted a pass in Liverpool’s half and Matip blasted it forward. It reached Salah who came in from the right and pulled it back towards Can. Can then shot straight at the keeper, even though he had a fantastic option in Mane coming in from the left.
But three minutes before the break, Moreno was beaten in the air and a great chance opened up for Gnabry, but Mignolet would have none of it. His save was followed by Wagner’s feeble attempt that went wide.
In the dying seconds of the half, Firmino engaged Mane, but Mane’s shot was blocked and went out for a corner. Lovren was the best in the air but his header went wide by an inch.
As soon as the play restarted after the break, Hoffenheim came threatening, but for once Moreno did some good defending and cleared it up.
The second period started just like the first, with momentum constantly shifting and both teams playing to score. Mane created a brilliant chance for Firmino and the Brazilian should have scored from close range, but the ‘keeper was up to the task. In the next Hoffenheim attack Gnabry beat Mignolet with a strong shot to the near post and hit the net, only for the goal to be disallowed for offside. Then Mane had a shot saved, and Can got booked for preventing a counterattack with a foul.
The clock was showing 51 minutes when Nagelsmann realized he needed to change something. Bicakcic was taken off and Havard Nordtveit came on, and Nadiem Amiri replaced Rupp just one minute later.
Over the next few minutes, Moreno performed another howler, simply abysmal estimation of a long ball as well as his opponent’s movement and got away with it, Alexander-Arnold got booked for some strong words directed to the referee, while Lovren performed some excellent defending against Amiri.
Around the hour mark, the absence of Adam Lallana in Liverpool midfield became obvious as Can constantly took too much time on the ball. Taking too many touches, he was needlessly slowing the game down just when it seemed it might open up for Liverpool as wide players made runs. But Klopp chose to keep him on the pitch and take Henderson out. Can dropped into the midfield-anchoring position while James Milner entered the fray and took the armband.
The game went on with both teams creating chances. Nagelsmann made his last substitution in the 69th minute when he replaced Gnabry with Mark Uth.
Lovren had another good header after a corner but this time the ‘keeper saved it off the line.
After 74 minutes had gone, Firmino found Milner on the left wing and the stand-in captain tried to employ Salah on the far post, but his cross got deflected and ended up in the net.
No more than Liverpool deserved.
Over the next 10 minutes only Liverpool played, the home team was nowhere to be seen, but at the end of that period legs got heavy and focus slipped. Dominic Solanke who replaced Firmino in the 83rd minute, won a header high up the pitch two minutes later and sent it to Mane, but the Senegalese seemed exhausted by that time and couldn’t do much anymore.
In the 87th minute, the lack of focus was costly. A long diagonal pass from the back found Uth. Matip was marking him and decided to step out and create on an offside trap, but Lovren failed to keep the back line straight and played Uth onside. Hoffenheim striker produced a brilliant shot to the far bottom corner and scored a goal that will give hope to the German team, hope that all is not lost just yet.
Klopp then sent Marko Grujic on instead of Mane, and this time his attempt to see the game out was successful, even though Hoffenheim had a great opportunity to score from a set-piece, but Hubner’s header went over the bar. The last thing worthy of mention was a decent effort from Grujic but it was saved.
Liverpool have therefore created a great foundation for the return-leg at Anfield, with two away goals scored and one-goal advantage. But before they can think about that – they host Crystal Palace.
Let’s walk on.