Football Features

“Just what the doctor ordered” – Liverpool’s under-pressure stars stand up in 2-0 Champions League win over RB Leipzig

By Chris Smith

Published: 22:17, 16 February 2021

In a high-octane night of football, Liverpool picked up a morale-boosting 2-0 win over RB Leipzig in their Champions League round-of-16 first leg on Tuesday.

Second-half goals from Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane did the damage as the Reds profited from some calamitous Leipzig defending. But you can’t take anything away from Liverpool’s performance as Jurgen Klopp’s men stood up brilliantly in response to their recent struggles.

Liverpool now take a strong lead back home for the return leg, but who were the winners and losers from this opening clash?

Winner: Alisson

It only feels right to start off with a fantastic performance from Liverpool’s most under-pressure player right now: Alisson.

Usually so reliable, the Brazilian stopper has been full of mistakes recently, making a hash of things against both Manchester City and Leicester. But on Tuesday he was back to his best.

As is usually the case, Alisson saw plenty of the ball and ended the match with 59 completed passes at a success rate of 75%, with none of the ball-playing calamity which underlined his performance against City. But more importantly, when Leipzig’s big moment came, the former Roma man was equal to the test.

Whether or not he got a touch to brush Dani Olmo’s header onto the post in the early minutes is unclear, but just after half-time, he raced out brilliantly to close out Christopher Nkunku after the Frenchman had got the wrong side of Jordan Henderson and in on goal.

Alisson quickly put his error against Leicester to bed, too, coming out and claiming Leipzig crosses with ease and regularity throughout the match. Just what the doctor ordered.

Loser: Dayot Upamecano

Wow. Where do you start with Upamecano’s performance on Tuesday? If you want our one-word summary, ‘shambolic’ is probably about right. But we know you’re here for more than that.

More than anything else, Upamecano is famed for his ability on the ball, whether it be short passes under pressure from opposition forwards or long, raking diagonals to get his side into the open field. All of that went out of the window on Tuesday, with the France international cheaply giving possession away as a matter of routine, often under absolutely no pressure. He was lucky when a Roberto Firmino header was ruled out as the ball went out of play in the build-up (although Upamecano almost allowed Mane to keep it in), with the defender giving the ball away to start the Liverpool counter-attack in the first place.

But he wasn’t so lucky in the second half as Firmino easily beat him to the ball in the build-up to the opening goal, while he was caught far too high up the pitch for the second, unable to bail out Nordi Mukiele after his horrendous misjudgement allowed Mane to race free toward the Leipzig box.

Upamecano ended the match with a horrendous 72% pass completion rate and with a lack of other excuses for such a top-class defender, you could argue his head has already been turned by that pending move to Bayern Munich.

Winner: Trent Alexander-Arnold

Like Alisson, Trent Alexander-Arnold has come under huge scrutiny this season, with many questioning his defensive capabilities, while the young right-back has even had his famed ball-playing skills doubted by some. Tuesday was a night for him to answer his critics and my word, did he!

Gone was the nervous, lacklustre Alexander-Arnold we’ve seen in recent months as back was the one capable firing precision balls into the box. The England international routinely sliced Leipzig’s inside-left channel open, exploiting the space left by the marauding Angeliño with some laser-guided passes.

And defensively, up against a talented Leipzig side? Alexander-Arnold was more than equal to that task, too. Sure, he wasn’t overly tested as Liverpool often dominated territory and possession, but every time Alexander-Arnold was called into action, his positioning and composure to make the right decisions was absolutely perfect. Alexander-Arnold displayed bucket loads of energy and few moments encapsulated his performance better than when, in the 78th minute, he raced forward to join the Liverpool press and made an interception to cut out a Leipzig pass, an action met with a booming cheer from Klopp on the sidelines.

If Alexander-Arnold can replicate this form in the Premier League, he’ll once again establish himself as the English top-flight’s unquestioned best right-back.

Loser: Nordi Mukiele

To blame Leipzig’s comical defensive performance on Tuesday entirely on Upamecano would be harsh. Afterall, he was one of four centre-backs to take the pitch throughout the night, and only one third of Nagelsmann’s back-three at any one time. Next in line for criticism has to be Upamecano’s compatriot, Nordi Mukiele.

At just 23, Mukiele is another who has established himself as one of the most exciting young centre-backs in Europe but Tuesday was certainly not his night. There was the obvious mistake for Mane’s goal, where Mukiele totally lost the flight of the ball in the air and ended up on his backside, allowing the Liverpool forward to race toward Peter Gulacsi’s net. But throughout the night, he was caught out by poor positioning and dreadful decision-making, leaving spaces right across the Leipzig backline.

So bad was Mukiele’s performance that Naglesmann hauled him off after 64 minutes in order to restore stability and change shape. The 23-year-old’s problem now is that Leipzig simply cannot afford to conceded at Anfield if they’re to stand a chance of mounting a comeback. It might well be that Nagelsmann won’t trust him against Liverpool’s fearsome front-three again.

Winner: Mohamed Salah

When is Mohamed Salah going to get the respect he deserves? Sure, everyone knows he’s world-class. But time and again, despite turning up season after season, he is left out of the conversation for the best player around right now.

The Egyptian has been the one man to stand up and be counted every single time during Liverpool’s recent rough patch, scoring six goals in his last six games prior to Tuesday, including in those recent defeats to Man City and Leicester.

On Tuesday, Salah stepped up again. Sure, it was as a result of a horrendous misplaced pass from Marcel Sabitzer and some questionable Leipzig defending, but once the 28-year-old got in on goal, you simply couldn’t picture him missing.

That’s now 24 goals across all competitions this season for Salah, who looks set for another Premier League Golden Boot and, perhaps, a third Champions League final with Liverpool. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet, though.

Loser: Marcel Sabitzer

Given how Leipzig effectively played suicide football in the face of Liverpool’s press, there was bound to be a few Leipzig players thrown under the bus on Tuesday, most were just shocked a goal didn’t come directly from an Upamecano mistake.

Instead, aside from Mukiele’s error, Sabitzer was the other to fall foul of an error, blindly trying to play a pass back to Lukas Klostermann, only to misjudge it and end up slipping a perfect through ball behind the Leipzig defence for Salah, who obviously slotted the ball past Gulacsi to open the scoring.

Like his teammates around him, Sabitzer never recovered from there, failing to influence the game further forward like he so often does in the Bundesliga. Nagelsmann will have been desperate to see the Austrian dominating the ball at the top of the Liverpool box, threading balls into his forwards or unleashing one of his trademark efforts from distance. Instead, Sabitzer ended the match with just one shot on target, no chances created and just 77% of his passes completed.

Winner: Jurgen Klopp

For various reasons, it’s been a real tough few weeks for Jurgen Klopp and, to be frank, he’s spent far too much time fielding questions about his side surrendering their Premier League title of late. The German simply needed a big win to silence his critics and remind everyone he is one of, if not the best around. Tuesday night delivered just that, with his Liverpool side pulling out a five-star performance against an incredibly talented Leipzig side.

From start to finish, the Reds matched the intensity and energy of their Bundesliga opponents, ruthlessly pressing and hitting Leipzig hard in transition. Every time a Liverpool player won a tackle, Klopp roared his approval. Every time their standards dropped, he demanded a reaction and got one instantly.

Ozan Kabak looks to be settling nicely into the Liverpool defence, Alisson put in a much-improved performance, as did Alexander-Arnold, and Thiago orchestrated play as he did so many times down the years for Bayern Munich. Klopp couldn’t ask for much more, especially ahead of this weekend’s Merseyside derby.


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