Outstanding Liverpool roared into the Champions League quarter-finals with a mature 3-1 away victory at German heavyweights Bayern Munich.
The first goal of a tense tie came before half time at Allianz Arena as Senegal forward Sadio Mane delightfully punished Germany No1 Manuel Neuer’s impetuous charge and slotted into an open goal. The score was levelled on the night, however, soon after when Cameroon defender Joel Matip sliced into his own net.
Last season’s beaten finalists were then imperious after the break and gained double reward. Netherlands centre-back Virgil van Dijk produced a towering header on 69 minutes and Mane nodded in Egypt forward Mohamed Salah’s enticing cross soon after to emphatically kill the two-legged contest.
SADIO IS THE MAIN MANE
Maybe it’s because of Mohamed Salah’s presence in this Liverpool side, or perhaps it’s just because of a tendency to be wildly inaccurate, but Mane this season deserves to be mentioned among the world’s most elite forwards.
Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo inhabit categories of their own and are thus incomparable, yet below those two otherworldly talents, Mane sits in a tier alongside players like Eden Hazard, Paulo Dybala, Gareth Bale and of course Salah.
He’s scored 19 times in all competitions this term and crucially, 11 have been procured in 2019 as Mane has stepped up while Salah’s contribution, at least in terms of goals, has waned.
The Bayern game served as a microcosm of what he has offered all season. From a Liverpool perspective, he broke the tension of what was a tight tie by being so enjoyable to watch.
He twisted and turned defenders, sprinted past others and dribbled around the pitch, emitting the same joy while doing so as he does to those watching on.
And it wasn’t just his activity on the ball, but the way he pressed and pushed Bayern back with such boundless energy.
Mane’s versatility across the front line shouldn’t be ignored either because he’s thrived when operating through the middle – a position from which he headed home his second on Wednesday – and more naturally out wide.
It was there he displayed the traits which elevate him into the elite class when opening the scoring.
Van Dijk sprayed a signature lobbed pass into the left channel, Mane capitalised on a poor mix up between Neuer and Rafinha to produce a goal of pure artistry in three resplendent touches.
The first was remarkable as he must only have had mere seconds to see the ball drop over his shoulder before killing it dead. He then Cruyff-Turned Neuer and applied a deliciously lofted finish.
He’s now scored seven away goals for Liverpool in the Champions League, more than any other player in the club’s history.
They’ve arrived against Sevilla, Porto, Manchester City, Roma, Real Madrid and now Bayern.
A big game player who deserves mention alongside the biggest names in world football.
A HUGE NIGHT FOR KLOPP
The reality of Jurgen Klopp’s return to Munich is a little further than the narrative being painted beforehand.
The rivalry between Borussia Dortmund and the Bavarian giants was more housed within the corridors of power as opposed to anything on the touchline.
However, the significance of this result for the German is monumental. Indeed, Liverpool have struggled away from home in Europe this season, losing all three group stage games on their travels.
It points to inexperience because it’s easy to forget that before Klopp, the Reds only qualified for the Champions League once in six years and on that occasion failed to even make it out of the group stage.
Yet he was able to guide his side through one of the most difficult tasks and did so with an XI he thought right for the tie, unbowed by the waves of apprehension which rise whenever the line-up is announced.
This was one of Klopp’s most impressive performances because Liverpool completely neutralised what has been a rampant Bayern of late.
He’s developed the club into a force domestically and abroad. Considering recent history, that’s a remarkable feat.
BAYERN IN TRANSITION
Going to Anfield and securing a 0-0 draw was viewed as a massive turning point for Niko Kovac because it was the first time Bayern collectively executed a clear plan.
They have appeared fractured for much of the campaign, but there were signs of a collective unit all pushing in the same direction.
That sentiment was further enhanced by three-straight Bundesliga wins with an aggregate score of 13-1.
Yet it appears the cracks in this squad were merely temporarily papered over and the structure is simply not sound. They are obviously in transition with half the team too old, and the other not quite refined enough for the top level.
This was a tie pitting two counter-attacking units and Liverpool had the better personnel to impose their will.
Things will change for Bayern in the summer. France left-back Benajmin Pavard has already signed, countryman Lucas Hernandez is set to follow plus Germany’s golden boys Kai Havertz and Timo Werner are strongly linked.
This result only expedites the need for change.
Their round-of-16 tie is finely poised after the two drew 0-0 at Anfield last month, meaning the first goal will be crucial as Liverpool hold the slight advantage being the away team. But Bayern know that an outright win on the night will see the Bundesliga giants through to the quarter-finals.
As you would expect, there are a myriad of talking points ahead of Wednesday’s heavyweight clash at Allianz Arena and we examine three of the most prominent below:
FRONT THREE FIND RHYTHM
Liverpool’s front three of Roberto Firmino, Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane can harness confidence from their individual and collective performance in the 4-2 win over Burnley at the weekend.
It was one of the rare occasions this season in which the entire attacking unit found their rhythm because for much of the campaign it’s been one, or two, of three in full flow but seldom the whole set.
Granted, Firmino has been forced to play a restrained role and create much deeper as Jurgen Klopp has often employed a conservative 4-2-3-1 with Salah in the spearhead.
Yet the Brazilian showed his qualities as a predatory No9 on Sunday, finishing two quintessential poacher opportunities and roaming about the pitch in constant search of an opening.
Those chances were being created by Salah. As a primary goalscorer, the Egyptian will be assessed through the prism of goals scored, however his contribution in other areas of the final third is vital, as shown on Sunday.
Mane has almost been a combination of the two, fashioning openings through his activity on the ball plus finishing expertly and regularly with four goals in his last three games.
All three have reached double figures in the Premier League this season, and they replicated that feat in the Champions League last term, too.
Combined, only six have been scored this campaign but the indication is that they can finally make a big imprint as a collective.
LIVERPOOL’S AWAY FORM
Curiously Liverpool’s form away from Anfield domestically and in Europe has been pretty poor.
Indeed, the Reds haven’t won on the road since a slender mid-January victory over Brighton and haven’t scored in their previous two, albeit against eternal rivals Everton and Manchester United.
If you dissect their results against the Premier League’s top six, they’ve managed only one win with three draws and a defeat.
These struggles are mirrored in the Champions League having lost all three group stage games on their travels.
The questions are why, and how can Klopp change this in Munich where Niko Kovac’s Bavarians have scored eight times in three games and are unbeaten in this season’s edition?
Midfield dynamism has been the issue. James Milner or Jordan Henderson have regularly partnered Georginio Wijnaldum with the third creative role constantly changing.
Milner and Henderson noticeably slow Liverpool’s attacking transitions and by removing those two entirely, Liverpool function much smoother.
A middle three of Fabinho at No6, Georginio Wijnaldum box-to-box and the counter-pressing energy of Adam Lallana, who was deeply impressive on Sunday, would be Klopp’s best combination to facilitate the front three.
Franck Ribery only featured for the last 10 minutes or so in the first leg after the birth of his daughter the night before, but he was an immediate threat.
Injuries and decline have forced Ribery into a peripheral role under Kovac, yet the 35-year-old remains a classy and effective talent.
It’s not just the Frenchman’s skill set either, but his cunning trait as one of the most experienced players in Bayern’s team.
Trent Alexander-Arnold is prone to naive performances and this is something Ribery can exploit.
He’s in the mood as well after producing three quite splendid assists in Bayern’s 6-0 demolition of Wolfsburg on Saturday. These were procured having started on the bench and in a 35-minute spell.
Ribery is confident, dynamic and his range of delivery means much of Bayern’s strategy should be based around pinning Trent Alexander-Arnold back and penetrating through their veteran winger.
Andy Robertson believes Liverpool‘s ruthless display against Burnley was perfect preparation going into a vital Champions League week.
The Reds had five shots on target at home to the Clarets on Sunday and converted four with Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane both scoring twice in a 4-2 victory.
In their last six matches in all competitions Jurgen Klopp’s team have had three goalless draws but have found the net 12 times in the other three.
The performance against Burnley was ideally timed ahead of facing Bayern Munich on Wednesday, with the last-16 second-leg tie delicately poised at 0-0.
So far this season Liverpool have lost all three away games in the Champions League but Sunday’s display has given Robertson confidence they will be better in Germany.
“The work-rate from all of us was brilliant, our counter-press to get the ball quickly and our reactions to poor passes or chances missed,” said defender Robertson, on his 25th birthday.
“We reacted well and we looked positive, that’s what we needed to get better at. We did that. We kept going and we were ruthless when the chances came.
“Last season we were good away from home in the Champions League, we caused teams problems and that’s what we need to do again.
“It will probably be a different game, they’ll need to come out a bit more, their fans will demand they try to create.
“It’s all about trying to keep them out first and foremost and then hopefully we can take the chances we get and do enough to get through.”
A return to winning ways in the Premier League means Liverpool reduced the gap to leaders Manchester City to one point.
For only the third time in their history, they have amassed 73 points from 30 matches. On the previous two occasions they went on to win the title: in 1904/05 in Division Two and the top-flight campaign of 1987/88.
“It’s another game down, eight to go. It’s going to be exciting one way or another,” Robertson told liverpoolfc.com.
“We need to give 100 per cent in every single game and whether it gets us a trophy or it doesn’t, we need to deal with that.
“The position we’re in now, one point behind with eight games to go, if we perform like that – especially with our attitude – then it’ll stand us in good stead.
“We’ve got some tough games coming up but we look forward to the chase and hopefully we can push them all the way.”