This was a victory of effort rather than skill. Fighting spirit more so than quality. But this is the Champions League where results mean more than performances and Liverpool managed to score three goals away to Bayern Munich to secure a place in the last-eight of this season’s competition.
That means that four Premier League sides have progressed to the next round, making the possibility of an all-English tie a probability. Yet in this round Liverpool had the toughest draw of the lot and for as poor as Bayern were, Liverpool engineered their progression through three well-worked goals to manage their first away win in Europe this season. This was a result, albeit not necessarily a performance, to highlight their growing reputation in Europe.
Story of the match
Jurgen Klopp showed once again the trust that he has in Jordan Henderson by choosing him to partner Georginio Wijnaldum and James Milner in midfield. It meant that Liverpool’s tried and tested trio, which has started all of the testing away matches this season, was reunited on a cold evening in Bavaria.
Many felt that such a selection was rather harsh on Fabinho who had played all of Liverpool’s last seven matches including filling in at centre back in the first leg, especially given the level of performance that the Brazilian has displayed in recent weeks. But within 10 minutes Klopp had to deploy his able deputy after Henderson picked up a heel injury.
That was just one stoppage in a cagey first thirty minutes. It was difficult to find a collection of more than three passes from either side and any expectations of an all-guns-blazing affair were quickly quelled. The respect that both teams had for each other three weeks ago was evident again here and it was clear that neither side wanted to commit too early.
It was more a case of lunges from behind and nervy passing rather than control and progressive forward-thinking. Virgil van Dijk, who so rarely puts a foot wrong, would have counted himself lucky when he came together with Robert Lewandowski in front of Alisson’s goal but a mixture of the defender getting a toe to the ball and the Polish attacker losing his balance meant that referee Daniele Orsato didn’t deem the tussle worthy of a penalty.
Niko Kovac gave Rafinha his third Champions League start of the season in place of the suspended Joshua Kimmich whilst Franck Ribery for Kingsley Coman was the only other change from the match at Anfield. But Bayern’s tactics of sitting deep and absorbing pressure surprisingly remained.
Liverpool started to muster a rhythm; beginning to create chances to go with their increasing possession. Roberto Firmino’s snap shot wide of the post midway through the half should have been the warning sign for Bayern to become more aggressive but it only encouraged the visitors.
A guided hoof from Van Dijk was expertly taken down with a sublime touch on the edge of the area by Sadio Mane. Oozing confidence, the Liverpool attacker with his back to goal spun around a stranded Manuel Neuer, who’d been redundant thus far, and fired the ball into an empty net. It was advantage Liverpool on 26 minutes; fully in the knowledge that Bayern now needed two goals, Klopp’s side were growing in confidence.
And it was Mane who was leading Liverpool’s charge. Constantly pressing centre backs Mats Hummels and Niklas Sule, he increased the pace of the match through his own work ethic. Bayern had to think on their feet and it was one long ball up-field from Sule, having been pressed by Mane, which got the hosts back into the tie with five minutes of the first half remaining.
Serge Gnabry collected Sule’s lofted pass on the left and fought his way into the Liverpool area past Andy Robertson. The ball which he eventually sent square into the six-yard area was sliced past his own keeper by Joel Matip to send the home supporters into celebration mode despite a disappointing first half.
Bayern had a lifeline and seemingly the momentum as passes were being stroked around more confidently. James Rodriguez started to find pockets that hadn’t looked available in the opening thirty minutes. Half-time came at an ideal time for Liverpool with Bayern in the ascendency.
However, if more evidence was needed that neither side had truly mastered the art of control then the second half produced it. It was tight, tense and at times turgid, mistakes arose from the nerves. Mo Salah shot straight at Neuer before Ribery sent an inviting ball across the Liverpool area which Lewandowski nor James could latch onto.
Too often the midfield area housed stodgy play, it was stop then start and the flow which had threatened to break out towards the close of the first half had dissipated. It was thus not surprising that the telling moment of the second half arrived from a set-piece.
Milner, who had been subdued for much of the match, delivered a pinpoint corner which Van Dijk rose high to meet and sent a bullet header down into the bottom corner of Neuer’s goal. With little over 20 minutes left to play, it was the kind of towering thrust that Klopp’s side needed.
Bayern had to attack, Liverpool could now counter; this was the exact scenario that Kovac would have least wanted. Leaving space for Liverpool to exploit is always asking for trouble and when a quick brake ended with Salah bearing down on goal, it was only a last ditch tackle from Rafinha that prevented what looked like a Liverpool third.
One did come though in the final minutes when Salah curled a cross with the outside of his boot and Mane met it with a lunging header at the back post. Bayern finished as they’d started: limp, uninspiring and unimaginative.
They had been fairly similar throughout the 180 minutes of play, which is not something that one would associate with a Bayern team. Liverpool though did not care, they had not scintillated or thrilled but they had found a way to win and progress.
Bayern far from their best
This was not only a disappointing evening for Bayern but also as a whole across the two legs. There was a discernable lack of imagination, cohesion and, ultimately, quality from the Bundesliga side. Whether this was a fault of the coaching or stage fright, there was never a period when Bayern dominated the tie.
In defence, the hosts were cowed and fearful of making mistakes, although they still produced them. Whilst in attack, they were blunt; only relying on slight glimmers of inspiration from individuals rather than any meaningfully crafted attacks. This is not a vintage Bayern team.
Mane and Van Dijk key to Liverpool’s progression
The elimination of a European heavyweight such as Bayern on their own ground and in these circumstances is further proof that Liverpool have re-established themselves on this stage. Although this was a performance somewhat lacking in quality with the ball, the goals were of a high standard.
Mane’s first was exquisite; the touch, the spin and the finish were by far the most eye-catching touches of the tie. Van Dijk’s powerful header and Mane’s lunging header gave Liverpool a cushion which they could sit on for the final five minutes. But it was the sturdiness at the back which Van Dijk brought and the energy that the in-form Mane brought in attack which were almost just as valuable as the goals.