Champions League: Liverpool's ability to raise their game when it matters bodes well for challenge on two fronts

Perhaps, we should have seen this coming. The theme of the Champions League round of 16 second legs had been – surprise. Apple carts collapsed all over. As if predicting football results was not a thorny endeavour already, the recent set of results may have put off many budding experts.

Bayern Munich became the latest victim of this contagion on Wednesday night. Arguably, a goalless away draw in the first leg was not as big an advantage like the ones spurned over the past week. But the German giant did arrive into the second leg at home as slight favourites.

Champions League: Liverpools ability to raise their game when it matters bodes well for challenge on two fronts

Liverpool produced an impressive second-half display to beat Bayern Munich in their own backyard. Reuters

Liverpool’s unedifying away form in the Champions League boosted Bayern’s prospects. The Reds had lost all three games on the road in the group stage while looking a pale shadow of their coruscating self that had blitzed through the competition last season. But in keeping with the running theme in Champions League, recent form was deceptive.

The pre-match news only fed Bayern’s hopes. Once again, Liverpool started with the midfield trio that carried a reputation for being merely functional on the continental stage — Jordan Henderson, James Milner, Georginio Wijnaldum. Although Klopp defended his players, his plan was not tested by a illustrious opponent in Europe again as Henderson picked up an injury early on. He was replaced by Fabinho.

But it was Sadio Mane who jumped to the forefront in a game of little quality. Even as Mohamed Salah has had a few iffy weeks, Mane has taken charge of scoring crucial goals for Liverpool. Fresh from his brace at the weekend, the Senegalese forward produced two more goals on Wednesday.

Mane’s sublime quality from both feet often confounds defenders and it was there to be seen on the first goal. The Bayern defence was quite unsure what he would do after controlling Joel Matip’s long ball at the edge of the box. Fed by the confusion, a ruffled Neuer came racing out and made the task of the Liverpool forward easy. Mane twisted to the left and went on to lift the ball into the empty net. The Reds had a crucial away goal in their hands.

But sloppy play by both teams meant that the next goal arrived after another defensive error. Bayern drew level before half-time as Andrew Robertson let Serge Gnabry run past him, another long ball causing chaos in the final third. Gnabry was able to direct it into the six-yard box and, with Robert Lewandowski lurking, Matip conceded an own goal.

Although Bayern was closer to the quarter-finals now, Liverpool dealt with the situation comfortably. The returning Virgil van Dijk, back from suspension, led the team from the back as he is wont to do. The Reds still looked purposeful and imaginative going forward. Bayern could only labour in the hope of a second goal. With Thomas Muller and Joshua Kimmich missing due to suspension, and Arjen Robben and Corentin Tolisso still convalescing, the host was short of options in the final third. One would not have guessed that, though, from the energetic singing that emanated from the stands. The home fans were in impressive voice, although the Bayern players unable to match their resolve.

Not very pleased with Franck Ribery’s marginal presence in the contest, manager Niko Kovac was moved to introduce his compatriot Kingsley Coman at the hour mark – the tyro had not been fit enough to start. But it was van Dijk who scored the decisive goal. Amidst a series of corners, the towering Dutchman rose above a helpless opposition to power home Milner’s accurate cross.

There has been much talk about the influence of van Dijk on this Liverpool team but he manages to push the ceiling above every now and then. The 27-year-old central defender started his Liverpool career with a headed goal, and he remains a handy presence at set-pieces. The gloss to an impressive result was added soon after when Mane boosted his continental pedigree to head Salah’s delicate cross home.

Liverpool’s evening did go somewhat sour towards the end when Robertson earned a needless booking that ruled him out of the quarter-final first leg. But deep pain was reserved for Bayern. It has been a difficult season in the Champions League for German clubs as no Bundesliga side made it to the last eight for the first time since the 2005-06 season. Bayern may have crawled back its way to the top of the domestic league but its still-rejuvenating squad is a liability in Europe.

It was the ease with which Liverpool turned the screw on the five-time European champion that must worry the Bavarian club. But the consummate performance will provide much delight to Klopp. His Liverpool team has been weighed down by the Premier League title race lately but there were no signs of anxiety in Munich on Wednesday. If Klopp’s players can sustain this level of football, a return to the Champions League final may well be within their grasp. With four of the remaining eight sides in the competition coming from the Premier League, familiarity with opponents will only strengthen belief at Anfield. As Liverpool showed against Bayern, it can raise gears according to the demands of the occasion.

Priyansh is an independent writer in New Delhi. He tweets @Privaricate

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Updated Date: Mar 14, 2019 12:52:54 IST

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