To look at the scoreline, even just the highlights, you would have thought this was quite the nervy night for Liverpool as they squeaked past Inter Milan by one goal in the second leg of the Champions League round of 16. Lautaro Martinez’s wonder goal on the hour gave the visitors hope that this would be one of those rare “famous European nights at Anfield” that didn’t end with the team in red celebrating.
And yet did this ever really feel like a tie that was not going to end with Liverpool victorious? Yes, the more suspiciously minded could point to Mohamed Salah leaving his shooting boots in the dressing room for once. But aside from the sheer randomness of this sport, there was little that might have taken this tie away from Liverpool.
As they had in the first leg, Inter acquitted themselves impressively in the midfield battle and showed they had a real plan to test Liverpool with rapid switches from one flank to the other. In particular, they looked to hit Ivan Perisic time and time again, reasoning that Trent Alexander-Arnold was the weak link in the Reds’ backline. That he may be, but reports of his defensive deficiencies have been greatly overexaggerated. In the most significant defensive moments, he delivered.
The same was largely true across the defense. All the hallmarks of its excellence were there to see. Inter became the latest side to fall foul of the precise Liverpool offside trap. Alexis Sanchez, in particular, was punished time and time again for lacking the pace of a younger, spritely forward. Three times he was caught out chasing balls in behind and yet questions are still asked of this team’s high line. Yes, on the rare occasions it misfires, there can be acres of space for opponents to attack, but more often than not these teams are forced to play the close quarters game that Jurgen Klopp wants.
That left Inter with precious little space to operate or to get into the areas where they might really test Alisson. They ended the game with just six shots worth a combined 0.3 expected goals compared to the 1.65 that the Reds registered. They might have been victors on the night but the odds of a string of long range pot shots turning into a two-goal victory did not favor the Italian champions.
“Without playing brilliantly, we had a lot of clear-cut chances and didn’t use them,” said Jurgen Klopp. “They didn’t have a lot of clear-cut chances but scored.”
In many other matches, Salah scores at least one of the shots that clattered back off the post, Joel Matip flicks Alexander-Arnold’s cross a few inches lower or Arturo Vidal does not make quite so many spectacular interventions.
Goals change games and who knows what might have happened if Alexis Sanchez did not go careening into Fabinho studs first mere seconds after Martinez had punished Virgil van Dijk’s solitary error across the tie, the Dutchman failing to get quite close enough before the long range effort was struck at Alisson’s goal.
The goal changed the feel of the game. It did not appear to appreciably change how Klopp’s side went about their task. Naby Keita and Jordan Henderson were introduced for Thiago and Curtis Jones, but there had been similar changes to the Liverpool midfield at a similar stage of the game in the San Siro.
Henderson’s mere presence seemed to take the heat out of the tie, the visible hand ensuring that Liverpool’s individuals acted for the betterment of the team. As stoppage time loomed on the horizon, Alexander-Arnold spotted a gap in the box and darted forward to fill it. Henderson would not try the risky pass over the top but instead ensured that possession remained with Liverpool. His young full back looked less than impressed, but this was the shrewd decision of a veteran leader who knew the value of a slightly underwhelming finale if it kept Inter from getting their hopes up.
It was not just Henderson steadying the ship. Thiago and Fabinho had done much the same earlier in this game. If that is to be expected then the tactical acumen of Curtis Jones might not have been taken for granted, no matter how impressive he has been when trusted by Klopp. One moment he was dropping back into the right back position so Alexander-Arnold could roam upfield, the next he was progressing the ball into the Inter third. He rarely made the wrong decision.
That was true of Liverpool as a whole on the night and across this tie. The scoreboard suggests a tightly fought contest but it is not always the perfect representation. Inter Milan had their moments but across the course of 180 minutes they were not that much more than brief salvos in a display of assertive quality from Klopp’s side.