Liverpool drew first blood in their Champions League qualifying tie against Hoffenheim with a 2-1 win, thanks to goals from Trent Alexander-Arnold & James Milner.
Having opened their Premier League account unconvincingly with a 3-3 draw away at Watford on Saturday, the Reds travelled to the Rhein-Neckar Arena knowing they were up against a Hoffenheim side that had not been beaten in 459 days on their own turf.
When the 22-man squad that would travel to south-western Germany was announced on Monday, it was only noticeable down to the absence of little magician Philippe Coutinho & striker Daniel Sturridge respectively.
Supporters were left disgruntled, and understandably so, at the lack of depth in the defensive or midfield ranks, with many lambasting Jurgen Klopp’s stubbornness in the transfer window as well as his adamant belief that the defence did not need strengthening.
The match itself unfolded in a strikingly similar manner to Saturday’s – fast, fluent and interchanging, attacking football. On the defensive front, it was more of the calamitous, disorganised dross we had become accustomed to by now. It was far from box office standard.
Liverpool almost made the worst start imaginable against Julian Nagelsmann’s side – conceding a penalty after nine minutes on the clock following Dejan Lovren’s clumsy foul on Hoffenheim winger Serge Gnabry.
Fortunately, goalkeeper Simon Mignolet denied Andre Kramaric from 12 yards following a tame penalty by the Croatian. This slowly seemed to spur the away side into life, with the Reds showing promise on the counter-attack.
After Sadio Mane was pulled back and denied a goalscoring opportunity, 18-year old Trent Alexander Arnold showed the courage to step up and take the corresponding free-kick. It wasn’t a bad hit either, curling the ball over the Hoffenheim wall and whipping it into the bottom right-hand corner, with goalkeeper Oliver Baumann standing as still as a statue.
Going into the interval, it remained 1-0 to Liverpool. After the break, Roberto Firmino missed a terrific opportunity to double the away side’s lead – denied from point-blank range. It mattered little though later on, after substitute James Milner’s intended delivery was deflected by Havard Nordtveit, and into the right-hand side of the net.
It looked like a comfortable end to the match for Liverpool – but customary of the back four, Mark Uth capitalised on some poor defending to pull one back for the hosts to ensure yet another nervy ending.
Naglesmann’s side then offered plenty of resistance in the last four minutes, drawing fouls and set-pieces as they looked to claw their way back into the contest.
But it was to no avail; Liverpool ran out 2-1 victors and took a slender advantage to Anfield for next Wednesday.
How did the players rate on Tuesday evening? Here are my top 3 performers from the clash at the Rhein-Neckar Arena, in ascending order.
3 – Simon Mignolet
The Belgian goalkeeper came under some scrutiny following the 3-3 draw at Vicarage Road on Saturday afternoon, with some criticising his failure to command his box well enough.
However, Mignolet has been rejuvenated ever since the backend of last campaign – and again showed his shot-stopping ability when his team-mates needed it most on Tuesday night.
He commanded his box very well, more often that not making the sensible decision on & off the ball. This is an aspect of Mignolet’s game that he is seemingly improving.
Although Kramaric’s first half penalty was far from lethal, the 29-year old did what he needed to and foiled the Croatian from the penalty spot.
He bailed his back four on countless occasions, sparing the likes of Dejan Lovren & Alberto Moreno embarrassment. Mignolet was called upon to make fine stops from Serge Gnabry and Nadiem Amiri respectively, even if he was helpless for the hosts’ late strike courtesy of Mark Uth.
Whilst it can be argued Loris Karius does in some ways suit Klopp’s high defensive line system better, you just need to ask the likes of Dejan Lovren, Alberto Moreno and Jordan Henderson the number of times Mignolet has spared their embarrassment.
Overall, a very good performance from Liverpool’s goalkeeper – who continues to defy some of his detractors.
2 – Trent Alexander-Arnold
It was a difficult choice, but for me Trent Alexander Arnold has to settle for my 2nd best player on the pitch against Hoffenheim.
It’s easy to stake a claim for him being the Man Of The Match, especially after that absolute blinder of a free-kick which gave Baumann not a prayer.
Only 18 years of age, Alexander Arnold stepped onto the centre stage in European competition for the first time in his career, which was a very bold decision by manager Jurgen Klopp, considering the fact that the likes of James Milner & more experienced first-team players were available to play in his position.
But yet again, the youngster repaid the faith instilled in him by Klopp, with a display full of maturity, edge and intelligent play – something that was lacking in some of his more experienced teammates at times
Whilst he is far from the finished article and still has plenty to learn, Alexander-Arnold’s cutting edge going forward is already a significant upgrade on Liverpool’s current full-back Nathaniel Clyne. His technique at set-pieces was terrific, rarely hitting the first defender and always picking out the right option.
On the ball, he also lead by example. Instead of regularly opting to play it safe or conservative passes in the final third, his passing was always creative & accurate; it offered the Reds something different to think about as, by trade, the role of the midfield was to offer all the attributes the local lad divulged on the ball. This has even opened this door for Alexander-Arnold to feature in defensive midfield – with a midfield pivot of Henderson-Can-Wijnaldum failing to offer any guile in the middle of the park.
His goal again, served to showcase the technical ability Alexander Arnold possesses; with Klopp’s coaching he surely only has the potential to improve.
However, there is no doubt Alexander Arnold needs to work on the defensive side of his game, something that his counterpart Nathaniel Clyne seems to be comfortable at. Whilst he makes mature decisions slightly further up the pitch, it could be argued that he lacks the experience & composure to deal with 1v1 defensive situations.
But it is worth remembering that he still needs the commodity of time on his side – but with his current performances, Trent Alexander Arnold has reason to believe he can displace Nathaniel Clyne at right-back soon.
1 – Sadio Mane
I had Mane for my Man Of The Match against Watford on Saturday afternoon, and again the winger put in a terrific display out wide for Klopp’s side on Tuesday to gain my Man Of The Match pick.
The Senegalese’s pace tortured Hoffenheim’s three centre-backs on the day, and on too many occasions he ghosted past with his trickery effortlessly. Mane could’ve put Liverpool ahead early on when he got the better of two players before seeing Baumann reach down to deny him from a tight angle.
His movement, like against Watford, was superb – and once again superbly exploited the half-spaces between the centre-backs. His pressing helped win the ball on several occasions, linking up with Salah & Firmino to create countless opportunities on the counter. Was very lively in the first, but influence slightly waned in the second.
Additionally, his quick feet too was a delight to watch at times. Continues to impress in both league & competitive fixtures for the Merseysiders.