Having beaten Paris Saint-Germain at Anfield in the Champions League opener and lost away to Napoli, Liverpool welcomed Red Star Belgrade in the third game of this season’s edition of UEFA’s elite competition.
The Reds came into the match on the back of a 0-1 win away at Huddersfield. The contest was settled by a Mo Salah strike in the 24th minute, and the team approached the Red Star showdown with confidence. Meanwhile, the Serbs successfully held Napoli off to a 0-0 draw in Belgrade, before getting hammered 6-1 at the Parc des Princes by Paris Saint-Germain.
Jurgen Klopp had a few midfield injury issues with captain Jordan Henderson and Naby Keita ruled out, but Sadio Mane was ready to return to the forward line.
Liverpool: Alisson; Alexander-Arnold, Gomez, Van Dijk, Robertson; Fabinho, Wijnaldum, Shaqiri; Salah, Mane, Firmino
— Fields Of Anfield Road (@FOARsite) October 24, 2018
Virgil van Dijk captains #LFC tonight.
— James Pearce (@JamesPearceEcho) October 24, 2018
Red Star manager Vladan Milojević was without the services of former Chelsea winger Marko Marin, left-back Milan Rodić and forward Jonathan Cafu. Centre-back Vujadin Savić traveled to England but was left out of the starting XI due to fitness concerns and named on the bench.
Milan Borjan was in goal. The back four consisted of Srđan Babić and Miloš Degenek as the centre-backs, and Filip Stojović on the right and Marko Gobeljić on the left. Branko Jovičić and Nenad Krstičić played in centre midfield, Slavoljub Srnić and El Fardou Ben Nabouhane on the attacking flanks, and Lorenzo Ebecilio in the No.10 role behind striker Richmond Boakye.
The First Half
Red Star came into the contest with a lot of desire and physicality, trying to stay defensively compact and hit when they can, and they even moved to press further up as the game progressed. The approach served them well for about 10 minutes, and then the Reds changed the pace a bit.
Their first opportunity went begging when Firmino slammed his shot into Trent Alexander-Arnold. Then Shaqiri’s brilliantly lobbed pass found Salah who came out one-on-one against Borjan, but the Red Star goalkeeper got down quickly and won that battle.
Liverpool’s attacking strategy didn’t seem to be working. It mostly consisted of midfielders trying to find Salah with long passes, but the Egyptian was marked very tightly. At the other end, the visitors had a good opportunity when Babić caught Firmino and Gomez napping when defending a corner in the 17th minute, but the centre-back couldn’t catch the ball properly.
Firmino made full amends three minutes later. Shaqiri won the ball in the opposition half and weighed a good pass for the run of Robertson down the left, and the left-back pulled it back low for the Brazilian on the penalty spot. Firmino took his marker out with a nice piece of dribbling and, helped by the slightest of deflections, slammed it past Borjan.
Liverpool could have doubled their lead within 60 seconds when Trent broke down the right and found Firmino again on the penalty spot. This time Firmino spotted Mane unmarked on the further post and tried to flick it on to him, but the flick was blocked.
With 25 minutes gone, Robertson combined well with Salah and mishit a cross with several teammates running into the box. Six minutes later a brilliant team move involving Shaqiri, Wijnaldum and Mane got Salah one-on-one with Borjan once more, but Borjan won again with the linesman’s flag raised for offside.
Liverpool continued their domination, but for a while they lacked ideas to get around the visitors’ stubborn defence. Even when caught out by a sudden interception, Red Star players were very quick to track back and close down all roads.
As for their rare attacks, the Serbian team mostly went down the left flank and got behind Trent a couple of times, but Gomez did well to protect his fullback.
With three minutes of the half remaining, Mane brilliantly set up Robertson for an unobstructed shot, but it was another mishit for the Scottish international.
However, just before the halftime whistle, Fabinho and Shaqiri created a chance for Salah. This time the Egyptian had no mercy from a position similar to when he scored the winner against Huddersfield.
The Second Half
Liverpool came out from the break with their foot down, stamping their authority over the game all over the pitch. They were finding it very easy to reach the opposition box and Red Star were on the ropes. Fabinho took a shot wide of the mark in the 48th minute, before Stojković swung an arm across the run of Mane and brought the Senegalese down two minutes later. Referee Daniel Siebert hesitated for a moment, but at a signal from his assistant he eventually gave a penalty and booked the Red Star fullback.
Salah was ruthless once more.
There wasn’t much worthy of reporting in the period that followed apart from a few moments that clearly displayed tension between the players. The ball was mostly in Liverpool’s possession and in Red Star’s half, and for a long while nothing exciting happened.
In the 65th minute, Milojević tried to shift something by introducing Dušan Jovančić for Ebecilio, and Klopp responded three minutes later by taking out Shaqiri and sending in Adam Lallana.
Jovančić brought in some life for the visitors with a couple of brave runs with the ball, but he had no support and no end product.
With 17 minutes remaining, Daniel Sturridge came on for Salah, right before Branko Jovičić earned a yellow card for a foul on Robertson. The delivery from the free-kick wasn’t very good, but Nabouhane was unbelievably clumsy with his attempt to clear it and caught himself on the arm. Siebert this time pointed to the spot straight away.
In the absence of Salah, Mane stepped up and got his penalty saved by Borjan.
But like Firmino in the first half, Mane made amends in the 80th minute. Wijnaldum won the ball high up and started a quick move. He involved Sturridge on the edge of the box, and the striker found the Senegalese unmarked.
Milojević then pulled out Nabouhane and brought on Veljko Simić, less than a minute before Sturridge spotted Lallana’s run and put him through with a brilliant pass. Lallana ran free towards the goal and took a shot from the edge of the box, but Borjan was out in time and produced a great save.
The visitors were quite annoyed at this point, and Jovančić picked up a yellow card in the 86th minute for a needless late tackle on Firmino. Two minutes later, Gobeljić also got his name in the book for venting frustration at the referee’s decision to award Liverpool a free-kick near the halfway line.
Sturridge tried to get on the scoresheet in the last minute of the 90 with an effort similar to the one at Stamford Bridge, but he wasn’t quite as accurate as that time.
In the last minute of the three added, Sturridge and Firmino played a brilliant pass each to set up Mane for a great chance, but Mane hit the outside of the net. The last moment of the game was a tame shot from outside the box by Sturridge.
First of all, it should be said that Fabinho had an impressive full debut. There were doubts being expressed by the media and the fans alike, but the Brazilian was superb once he got into stride around 15 minutes into the game. In fact, the whole team had a very good game; there were no weak links. Perhaps Mane and Salah should have been sharper on few occasions, but their contribution to this convincing win cannot be disputed.
Liverpool and Red Star now enclose Napoli and PSG, who played a 2-2 draw in Paris, in the Champions League Group C table:
Klopp’s men travel to Belgrade in two weeks to face Red Star again, and there’s very little doubt the job will be a lot harder over there. The Serbian team can be very resilient, as Napoli can testify, especially when they feel the support from the stands of the Rajko Mitić stadium. However, the vast difference in quality, clearly displayed here, should be enough to earn Liverpool another three points there.
But before that, it’s Cardiff City at Anfield on Saturday.
We Walk On.