It’s hardly necessary to talk about the importance of a game like this. The ability of a team to perform at the biggest stage is a very good indicator of its position among the European elite, and a game like this opens a door towards glory (there are, of course, others ahead) for one team, while it ends a dream for the other; often in a brutal fashion.
Having played a goalless draw at Anfield, Liverpool traveled to Munich to face Bayern at the Allianz Arena in the second leg of their Champions League round of 16 clash.
Jurgen Klopp was without the services of Naby Keita who had suffered a minor injury, and given the midfielder’s experience in the Bundesliga it was certainly a blow against Bayern, regardless of the Guinean not getting much game-time recently. Trent Alexander-Arnold went off injured on Sunday against Burnley, but Klopp’s hope of having the young fullback available paid off. Dejan Lovren and James Milner both made the trip after recovering from a hamstring and muscle problem, respectively. We’ll have to wait a bit longer for the return of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Rhian Brewster, however.
Like in the first leg, Bayern coach Niko Kovač couldn’t count on forward Thomas Muller who was suspended for the whole tie, and fullback Joshua Kimmich joined him on that list after picking up a yellow card at Anfield. Fullback David Alaba and winger Kingsley Coman were both doubts, but they both recovered in time. Alaba started; Coman was on the bench. Midfielder Corentin Tolisso remains out for the season with an ACL injury.
The First Half
As expected, both sides entered the game with caution, patiently probing and trying to get on the front foot. One of the more interesting things to note was that Salah played on the left side of attack, Mane on the right.
Bayern proved the more successful early on in terms that they managed to keep possession better than the opposition, but it took them a while to get the ball forward. Meanwhile, Klopp had to send Fabinho for an early warm-up as Henderson went down and needed treatment after only five minutes.
On the stroke of eight minutes, the Bavarians had their first chance. Robertson did well to stop Gnabry after a one-two with Lewandowski inside the box, but Firmino’s sloppiness allowed Thiago to have a go from 20 yards – over the bar.
But Bayern continued making the most of Liverpool’s indecisiveness, and a ball over the line almost found Lewandowski in behind, but the Polish striker went down after contact with van Dijk. Referee Daniele Orsato from Italy resisted the pressure from the stands and waved “play on”.
In the 13th minute, Henderson felt he could play no more and Fabinho came on.
It wasn’t a good start from the Reds, and the referee at that point seemed to be giving every 50-50 decision to Bayern. The home side were gradually pushing the line of battle towards Alisson, winning most of the balls in the middle of the park.
Liverpool tried different things in their bid to confuse their opponents. After a while, Salah and Mane returned to their positions, and the shape occasionally turned into 4-4-2 with Firmino dropping into midfield and both Mane and Salah playing slightly closer to each other. But it was the sloppiness in passing, not helped by Bayern’s lively pressing, that was the team’s biggest obstacle to overcome.
Bayern were very disciplined and rigid in their positioning. They were arranged in a 4-2-3-1, just like at Anfield, with Thiago and Martinez sitting ahead of the back four, Ribery on the left, Gnabry right, James behind Lewandowski.
In the 24th minute Firmino suddenly got a chance to hit one from 20 yards and he just missed the target. Matip then cheaply gave the ball away and made up for it just as Bayern were string a counterattack.
But then, a long pass from van Dijk found Mane on the edge of the box, the Senegalese combined strength and skill in perfect measure as he controlled the ball and held off Rafinha, turned around the blundering Neuer who came out too far, and with great composure placed the ball in the net. A great goal from a great player.
Bayern did look a bit shocked, but they quickly recomposed themselves and Lewandowski tried to take advantage of a sloppy pass from Trent and run at van Dijk, but his shot was defected off the Dutchman and into the hands of Alisson. Soon afterwards Gnabry tried to find Ribery with a ball chipped over Trent, but Matip outpaced the experienced Frenchman and sorted it out.
The Bavarians pushed hard down the left flank in the 33rd minute, but Salah tracked back and did some marvelous defending before taking the ball high up the pitch and getting crowded out. The Reds soon produced a promising counterattack which ended with Robertson shooting from a tight angle straight at Neuer. They followed that up with some strong pressure from two consecutive corners, but the home team held out.
And in the 39th minute, they were level. A long pass from behind by Sule caught Robertson on his heels and Gnabry was off. The former Arsenal winger squared it across the six yards and Matip simply had to react in front of Lewandowski. Unfortunately, all he managed to do was to divert it into his own net.
Three minutes before the break, Fabinho was slightly late on James some 25 yards out and earned a booking, and Alabe lined up, but his shot over the wall was easily collected by Alisson. But it was much more serious on the stroke of 45 as Lewandowski broke free and sent the ball past Alisson – just wide. Offside was then given as the linesman probably wanted to leave the call to VAR had it gone in.
The Second Half
The teams came out from the break just like they did at the start, patiently, looking for an opening to create and exploit. It was Liverpool who found one first as Salah sprang alive in a counterattack in the 50th minute and whacked a shot from just outside the box, but Neuer did well.
The Reds tried to build on that moment by pressing hard in midfield. They won a few duels and pushed the lines up, but Bayern soon switched to a more direct approach, aiming for Lewandowski with long passes and looking to utilize his experience and hold-up play.
When that failed too, they once again went for playing past the opposition but the visitors managed to hem them in for a while. It was much better stuff from Klopp’s men.
In the 58th minute, Lewandowski made a smart run through the middle to get on the end of a long pass, but Matip was there to stop him again. Frustration was starting to show on the man who once played under Klopp, and he started not only going down too easily, but also committing fouls and complaining when they were given against him.
However, Gnabry did well again on the hour-mark to make a run down the right and square it towards Lewandowski, but Matip once more tracked the striker and did just enough to put him off this time.
Then Ribery made way for Kingsley Coman.
Two minutes later, Matip took out Lewandowski from behind some 40 yards out and got into Orsato’s book.
Bayern were succeeding in slowing Liverpool down and taking the sting out of their second-half early domination, but as time went on, they were forced to push their lines higher. That, in turn, opened space for Liverpool to try and exploit, and Thiago was next in the book for a foul from behind on Wijnaldum. Martinez took the opportunity to stamp on the Dutchman’s ankle, but Orsato missed that and the VAR people obviously didn’t consider it a red card offence.
But the moment served as inspiration for Liverpool. They kept pushing the hosts and when Milner took the second successive corner, van Dijk jumped high and slammed his header into the bottom corner.
With no time to waste now, Kovač introduced Leon Goretzka for Martinez.
It was now Bayern’s turn to push high and win two successive corners, but there’s no van Dijk in their team and Liverpool weren’t going to let them do what they want. The battle in the middle was getting fierce, but the Reds almost got third in the 75th minute as Salah burst into the box and took on three defenders. Unfortunately, he didn’t see the run of Mane on the other side and Sule just managed to poke the ball away. It still almost reached Mane but Neuer came and blasted it out.
With 12 minutes remaining, James made way for Renato Sanchez.
Liverpool’s transition play was simply superb at this point. They were incredibly quick in moving forward and just as good at getting back to defend, and the size of the mountain Bayern were attempting to climb gradually increased. They were losing patience and Sanchez took a hasty shot from range wide in the 83rd minute with several options to choose from, and Klopp took the chance to replace Firmino with Divock Origi.
A minute later Sanchez picked up a booking for a foul on Wijnaldum, and then Mane put an end to the Bavarian’s hopes.
It turned out a brilliant decision once more from Klopp to put Origi on the left and Mane through the middle. The Belgian did well in the 84th minute to hold the ball up and involved Salah on the right. Salah produced a magical cross for Mane in between Bayern defenders and Mane stretched his head out to score his second on the evening, Liverpool’s third.
The only player for the generally dispirited Bavarians who still showed some desire late on was Coman. The youngster looked very lively on the left flank, but it was all in vain.
And then, probably in the worst possible moment – in the 91st minute, Robertson picked up a yellow card. He was the only Liverpool player in danger of suspension for the quarterfinal first leg, and he took out Goretzka in the injury time when his team had been certain to go through.
A sudden burst and shot off target by Wijnaldum was the only thing left to see before the final whistle, but the sound of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” echoing from the stands of the Allianz Arena in Munich was a pure delight to hear.
Despite the nerves shown in the first half, there’s no disputing the fact that Liverpool outplayed Bayern over 180 minutes and went through deservedly. It must have been some pep talk in the dressing room at halftime given how the players responded after the break.
They were clearly the superior team, and Klopp will likely take some private joy out of taking Bayern out in this fashion, having lost the 2013 final to them as well as some key players afterwards.
So there it is – four English teams, all four have made it into the quarterfinal, but it’s hard to imagine all of them going to the semis. We await the draw.
But next up – Fulham at Craven Cottage.
We Walk On.