Europe remains Liverpool’s sanctuary. Unrecognisable in their defence of the Premier League title yet authoritative in the Champions League, Jürgen Klopp’s side advanced into the quarter-finals with a repeat of their first leg victory over RB Leipzig in Budapest. Confidence visibly poured back into Liverpool’s players once Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané confirmed their vast superiority over the second placed team in the Bundesliga.
Salah and Mané struck in the space of four second half minutes, having done the same in five in the first leg, to ensure there would be no fresh crisis for Klopp to contend with in this troubled season.
The Champions League offers salvation and this was a gradual return of Liverpool’s form when it mattered most. They were certainly wasteful in front of goal until Salah rounded off a fine team goal, collecting Diogo Jota’s ball and cutting inside the statuesque Dayot Upamecano before sending a trademark finish inside the near post. Moments later Mané pounced on an inviting cross from substitute Divock Origi and any complaints over their finishing was forgotten.
Fabinho finally returned to his favoured midfield role, for the first time since October, as Ozan Kabak’s return from injury allowed Klopp to partner the loan signing alongside European debutant Nat Phillips in central defence. Inexperience in the heart of an already vulnerable defence may have been a necessary risk from the Liverpool manager although, as in the first leg, it was the Leipzig rearguard that truly struggled in and out of possession.
Phillips and Kabak were comfortable in comparison as Liverpool controlled the opening period, restricting Leipzig’s chances for an important early goal and creating enough opportunities to put the tie beyond doubt. There were clear openings too, unlike in recent Premier League games, but Liverpool remained wasteful in the extreme.
The contest bore many similarities to the first leg and not only in respect of Leipzig inviting problems by attempting to play through a relentless Liverpool press with defenders who consistently struggled to do so. Julian Nagelsmann persisted with the same ineffective shape, unforced errors littered the German side’s display and Liverpool, strong in central midfield, were the more assured and dangerous team throughout the first half. Their finishing, however, was the only reason Leipzig still had hopes of a recovery by the interval.
Thiago Alcântara was far more influential with Fabinho offering protection alongside him and could have opened the scoring from Liverpool’s first attack. Played through the middle by Georginio Wijnaldum, Liverpool’s captain for the night, the midfielder attempted to release Salah inside the area when he had a clear sight of Peter Gulacsi’s goal. Kevin Kampl intercepted Thiago’s pass and the tone for a profligate first half performance from Liverpool was set.
Mané volleyed over from a tight angle following another incisive ball from Wijnaldum. Jota, starting in place of the injured Roberto Firmino, sent a powerful header goalwards from a Trent Alexander-Arnold corner but Gulacsi, the former Liverpool reserve goalkeeper, tipped over superbly. Gulacsi saved again when Thiago sent Salah racing through with an acrobatic clearance from a Leipzig free-kick. The Egypt international’s low shot was pushed away by the Leipzig keeper to Mané, who made a mess of an attempted header from the rebound when he looked certain to score.
Alexander-Arnold, like Thiago before him, then elected to pass instead of shooting when released inside the area by Mané. His attempted cut-back to Salah was intercepted by Upamecano. Jota sent another clear shot straight at Gulacsi before squandering a glorious chance on the stroke of half-time when Upamecano inadvertently rolled the ball into his path while clearing from Salah. Jota, from six yards out, struck the side-netting.
Leipzig chances, by contrast, were few and far between in the first half. They showed little inclination to exploit the high defensive line that has brought Liverpool’s domestic opponents such success of late and had little idea of how to break through a strong, concentrated back-line. Dani Olmo did have an early sight of Alisson’s goal when Christopher Nkunku found Yussuf Poulsen inside the area and the striker’s touch invited a first time shot from the midfielder. Alisson saved at full stretch and, aside from watching Emil Forsberg drag a shot wide of his left post, enjoyed the remainder of the first half as a spectator.
Nagelsmann recognised the need for change and introduced Alexander Sørloth at the break, plus fellow strikers Justin Kluivert and Hwang Hee-chan on the hour. There was an immediate improvement in Leipzig’s intensity in the final third and Sørloth steered a header against the crossbar from Hwang’s left-wing cross. Olmo shot over seconds later, encouraging the Leipzig manager on the sidelines, but his optimism was shattered almost immediately.
Salah and Mané finally brought a clinical touch to Liverpool, scoring twice in quick succession as they did at the Puskas Arena three weeks ago, and Premier League troubles were forgotten for a while as the Premier League champions eased into the quarter-finals.