Liverpool have opened their 2018/19 Champions League campaign by welcoming arguably the strongest opponent in their group – Paris Saint-Germain, to Anfield.
After the heartbreak of Kiev, it was finally time for the Reds to take that road again, to do battle against Europe’s finest for the greatest trophy of them all. A game against a team containing some the best players in the world can never be an easy one, and nobody expected it to be. Like Liverpool, PSG will do everything they can to win the competition and truly establish themselves among the European elite.
Having suffered a poke in the eye from Jan Vertonghen in the Reds’ win against Spurs at Wembley on Saturday, Roberto Firmino was a doubt for this game and whether he would play remained a mystery for anyone outside the dressing room until the last moment. Luckily, he made it in time to be on the bench. Dejan Lovren and Alex Oxlade Chamberlain remain long-term absentees and Adam Lallana was also unavailable, as were Divock Origi and Dominic Solanke who had picked up knocks playing for the club’s U-23 team.
This was the line-up chosen by Jurgen Klopp:
On the other hand, PSG manager Thomas Tuchel had the luxury of resting Neymar and Kylian Mbappe (who was suspended) in their 4-0 thrashing of St. Etienne on Friday, and his team that took to the turf under the Anfield lights was this:
Alphonse Areola in goal, Thiago Silva and Presnel Kimpembe as the centre-back duo, Thomas Meunier as the right back and Juan Bernat as the left. Marquinhos anchored the midfield also containing Adrien Rabiot and Angel Di Maria, while upfront, Edinson Cavani lead the line with Neymar on his right and Mbappe on his left.
The First Half
The Reds seemed a little nervous at the start with Mane losing the ball and Henderson taking out Cavani to prevent a quick counterattack within a minute. PSG on the other hand were more calm in possession, with Neymar mostly taking the ball and dropping into central midfield to dictate play.
But the first chance fell to Liverpool after two successive corners, to van Dijk in particular whose volley from around 15 yards was saved by Areola. The moment seemed to give the Reds some needed boost and several minutes of Liverpool pressure followed, during which Milner and Mane tried their luck from the edge of the box prompting a pair of saves. Gomez tried a header from a corner but couldn’t hit the target. At moments, PSG defence hung by a thread.
The visitors looked to exploit Liverpool’s high defensive line by leaving Mbappe as the man furthest up, but the Reds, Alisson included, were alert.
However, PSG also had a great chance after 16 minutes. Meunier swung in a good cross towards Cavani but van Dijk cleared it. It was picked up by Di Maria who gave it to Neymar. The Brazil captain took a few steps forward and blasted a shot straight into Alisson, and van Dijk made sure Cavani couldn’t capitalize on the rebound. A few minutes later Mbappe ruined what looked like a good counterattack with an inaccurate pass.
The French team grew more comfortable with getting behind the ball, defending and waiting for a chance to explode forward, but it was always dealt with. On 20 minutes, a good pass from Milner found the run of Mane into the box, but Silva and Kimpembe stopped the Senegalese winger with a joint effort.
After a quarter of the game had passed, PSG came out a bit more and applied some pressure of their own, during which Gomez displayed some fantastic defensive instinct to stop Neymar, before Liverpool went forward again and Mane humiliated the Brazil superstar with a superb piece of dribbling. Too bad his subsequent shot went sky-high.
Mbappe then threatened to get past van Dijk and the Dutch defender had to use his arms to stop his run, for which he was the first player on the night to get in the referee’s book.
But right on the half-hour mark, Mane failed to reach high enough for Trent’s cross and the ball passed through the box to the left side. Robertson swung it back in, and having taken an excellent header from close range – Sturridge was dancing.
Soon afterwards, a combination of Salah and Wijnaldum caused all kinds of problems in the visitors’ box, before Alisson’s not so good clearance gave the ball away and PSG soon earned a free-kick at some 25 yards. Neymar took it and it hit the wall, before going out for a corner. Neymar stepped up again and pulled a cunning low cross for Mbappe whose shot just missed the top corner.
Then the Reds broke out and, as minute 35 was flowing Salah and Wijnaldum combined once again. The Dutch midfielder held the ball inside the box under pressure from several opponents and earned his team a penalty by getting tripped from behind by Bernat. Referee Cuneyt Cakir from Turkey looked to be in no doubt whatsoever as he blew his whistle and pointed to the spot.
A moment for James Milner.
Having gone further down, the Parisians finally showed some grit and started fighting back, and they were soon rewarded.
A cross by Di Maria was met with a poor attempt of a clearance by Robertson, and it came to Meunier. The Belgian fullback hit a good volley from around 12 yards straight into the near bottom corner and beat Alisson. It was a timely reminder that just one split-second moment of lost concentration is usually costly against a top team.
The Reds quickly regained composure. Some good pressing enabled them to win the ball in the opposition half and attack a few times, but PSG defended well. When they won possession, the Parisians looked composed themselves. However, Meunier was forced to earn a booking by taking out Mane from behind to stop a counterattack, and that was it for the first 45 minutes.
The Second Half
PSG came strong into the second period. Some good pressing and fine technical skill enabled them to threaten seriously within a minute, but Liverpool defended well. The Reds quickly responded with Sturridge trying to employ Salah on the edge of the box but the visitors displayed some fine defending of their own.
But after that initial pressure from the visitors, Klopp’s men were now having more of the ball, keeping it nicely in the opposition half while the Parisians tried to play more directly. It mostly wasn’t working for them as Liverpool found ways to slow them down or to force a mistake in passing.
In the 58th minute, Mane was hesitating around 20 yards out from the middle of the goal and handed the ball to Wijnaldum whose deflected shot found Sturridge on the edge of six yards. Sturridge’s touch was a tad too strong, Areola came out and the Liverpool striker caught him with his boot before Salah put the ball into the empty net. The goal was rightly disallowed due to a foul on the PSG goalkeeper.
Two minutes later Sturridge almost scored again. Trent found him between the PSG centre-backs with a lovely bent cross but his free header was not good enough to beat Areola this time.
Liverpool were playing smart. They held the ball with confidence, weaving their attacks and always coming very close or into the opposition box. The cases of PSG doing that were few and far between.
In the 67th minute, Kimpembe brought down Sturridge some 30 yards out. The free-kick was cunningly taken by Milner who lobbed the ball over the wall for Trent, but the youngster’s cross aimed at Mane in the middle was intercepted. But Liverpool kept circling around in a wide arch around the PSG box, and as the visitors tried to put the ball under their control the Reds broke on the counterattack. It was, however, ruined by Sturridge who took too much time on the ball, eventually putting Henderson in a position where the captain was crowded out inside the box.
Soon afterwards, Sturridge left the pitch and Klopp completed his fabulous attacking trio by introducing Roberto Firmino.
As the game entered its final 15 minutes, the visitors expectedly pushed forward to try and find an equalizer, but they still couldn’t find a way to break through Liverpool’s stubborn defence. Robertson won a couple of battles against Mbappe and Trent did the same on the other side against Neymar.
Julian Draxler and Eric Choupo-Moting entered the fray for Di Maria and Cavani with 10 minutes remaining.
Wijnaldum and Milner both made fantastic defensive contributions before Salah and Mane combined well at the other end and the Senegalese came very close from a tight angle.
And then, an inexplicable mistake by Salah caused a thunder to explode from a clear sky. His misplaced pass in Liverpool’s half was picked up by Draxler. The German gave it to Neymar who broke into the box but failed to control it properly. However, luck was on PSG’s side in that moment as the ball came to Mbappe whose step was a tad too quick for Gomez, and the young Frenchman turned and fired into the net from close range.
There were seven minutes to go, and though it felt like a cold shower, the Reds seemed quite determined not to allow it to get them down.
Salah made way for Xherdan Shaqiri.
As the finish became a bit hectic, a foul on Mane the very edge of the box gave Trent a nice chance from a free-kick and it almost went in, scraping the post after a deflection by Kimpembe. Then Draxler and Mbappe ruined a very dangerous counterattack at the other end, with van Dijk at the heart of their problem.
In the end, Firmino made sure we would witness another incredible European night at Anfield.
Shaqiri took a corner from the left side, PSG cleared it but failed to initialize a counterattack with Milner brilliantly stopping Mbappe in his tracks. Gomez picked it up and involved van Dijk. Then van Dijk gave it to Firmino who entered the box on the right-hand side, and in a manner of a world-class striker, the Brazilian danced this way and that before whacking it straight into the far bottom corner, past Areola and into the net, inside the second of three minutes of stoppage time.
The visitors tried to get the ball forward quickly as Fabinho replaced Mane, but it was too late.
There’s not much one can say or be smart about after a game like this. It was a spectacular Liverpool performance against one of the best teams in the world, and the win, however late it might have arrived, was thoroughly deserved. Still, these moments of concentration failure could have been costly, and let’s hope it’s something Klopp and the team will be looking into.
Be that as it may, Liverpool have opened their Champions League campaign in a magnificent manner and they top Group C as Red Star successfully resisted Napoli in Belgrade and earned a point in a goalless draw.
Next up – Southampton.
We Walk On.