(Photo Credit: Sky Sports; Cover photo credit: Sky Sports)
This past Tuesday, we saw the start of the UEFA Champions League Playoff Round, as Liverpool lined up against German side Hoffenheim. Hoffenheim finished fourth last year in the Bundesliga. In 2008, they were the runner ups in the 2nd division, which gave them promotion for the first time in history. After nine years in top flight, last year they qualified for the first time ever to compete in the European competition. Liverpool finished fourth as well last year in the Premier League, as they try to make back into the group stage for the first time since the 2014-15 season. Liverpool were looking to put their weekend struggles behind them as they aimed to take advantage in Leg 1. We had one team making their first ever appearance on the big stage and another team trying to make it back to the promise land. What a game we saw!!
It didn’t take long for the excitement to get going, Liverpool started the game pressuring Hoffenheim. In the eighth minute, Mane used his speed to move around the defense as he got a shot off from the side, on goal, but was easily saved by Baumann. Mane’s idea was to get Liverpool started on the right foot but Hoffenheim didn’t hesitate, and within minutes Hoffenheim midfielders advanced the ball up the field into Liverpool’s territory. Serge Gnabry, Hoffenheim’s young new acquirement, won the ball over and made his way into the box as he was met by Dejan Lovren. Lovren leapt forward to win the ball over although he missed the ball and clipped Gnabry’s legs causing him to fall and awarding Hoffenheim with a penalty shot and the opportunity to take the lead early on. Simon Mignolet, Liverpool’s goaltender who by the way had a magnificent game, had something else in mind as Andrej Kramaric stood across from him to take the penalty. Kramaric scored a total of eighteen goals last year and was ready to add his first one this year. However, a poorly struck ball right down the middle didn’t give Mignolet anything to worry about, as he smacked it off to the side to keep the game scoreless. After the penalty save, Hoffenheim started to play a possession game although Liverpool pressured a lot up the field. Kevin Vogt, Hoffenheim’s captain, felt the pressure as a pass attempt was intercepted by Firmino who shuffled the ball up the field to an open Mohamed Salah, splitting the defensive gap. Salah lead the counterattack up the field although a hesitation from Salah allowed Vogt to storm right back to add pressure, causing Salah to shoot it wide of the net as a great opportunity went to waste. Liverpool’s speed was becoming the difference maker as once again Mane moved between defenders causing them to intentionally foul and bring a free kick about ten to twenty yards outside the penalty box. Trent Alexander-Arnold is an 18-year old left back who came up from Liverpool’s under 23 team last year as he played twelve games on the top team. He was to take the free kick. As the ref blew the whistle for the free kick, it was the teenager with a beautiful kick over the wall, and towards the bottom right post as he puts Liverpool up 1-0. The goal was a really important away goal for the reds. Before the half, Hoffenheim threatened again as Gnabry easily won the ball over and got face to face with Mignolet as he came up with another big save. Liverpool left the field up 1-0 at halftime.
We saw an entertaining first half with both teams creating chances, although they couldn’t finish. We continued to see Liverpool’s defense struggle to clear the zone, which left Mignolet having to come up with big saves as Hoffenheim wasn’t threatened by the bigger club.
Just like the beginning of the game, Liverpool didn’t waste any time as they put a shot on goal just minutes into the second half. Mane with his speed, went around the left back as he crossed a ball into Firmino, who was left alone only for his shot to go right of the goalkeeper and to be cleared by the defense once again. Liverpool seemed much more organized in the second half as they continued to pressure Hoffenheim. A quick free kick taken by Liverpool at midfield caught Hoffenheim off guard as James Milner, having just entered the game, found himself with room to work with as he entered the penalty box looking for a man to cross the ball to. In a matter of moments, the ball found itself in the net as Liverpool took a 2-0 lead in the seventy fifth minute. The cross from Milner deflected off a defender and went into the net. Baumann was waiting for the cross and wasn’t even paying attention to the ball which went to the top right corner. Liverpool had the goals they were looking for with only fifteen minutes remaining for them to hold on. Unfortunately, the struggles they showed over the weekend against Watford continued as Hoffenheim was taking advantage of the open space and the mistakes the defense was giving them. Mignolet was facing shots left and right, while trying his best to keep it a clean sheet. However, the goal that Hoffenheim was looking for came three minutes before stoppage time, as a laser kick by Mark Uth smoked right by Mignolet to the lower right corner. That goal gives plenty of hope to Hoffenheim, as they pressured Liverpool the whole game.
Leg 2 will be played on Wednesday at Anfield with Liverpool still holding two important away goals. Liverpool’s offense had plenty of chances but just couldn’t put it away. They will use their speed as an advantage in the second leg, as they will look for an early goal to extend their lead. The offense isn’t the team’s concern, rather the defense truly is. The miscommunication, gaps left open across the field, and not clearing when necessary, is really hurting them. It cost them two points over the weekend and now has given Hoffenheim some hope in the second leg. With the two away goals, Liverpool are ninety minutes away from making it back to the group stage. For Hoffenheim to advance to the group stage, they will need to hold Liverpool scoreless and score two away goals themselves. If Liverpool finds the net first then Hoffenheim will find it more difficult as they will need two goals just to get it into extra time or three goals to advance. In two leg matches, anything can happen as we’ve seen in previous years (cue up Barcelona vs PSG). Let’s just hope Liverpool fixes their backfield mistakes and doesn’t allow the defense to become the downfall for them this year.