When the draw for the Champions League was initially made, eyes were immediately drawn to this opening fixture between Liverpool and AC Milan, a game full of quality, determination, prestige and European royalty. Despite only playing each other twice, the fixture holds huge significance in the history of both clubs, with both teams beating each other in Champions League finals, most notably Liverpool’s inexplicable comeback victory in Istanbul. This was the first meeting between the two sides in a non-final game, and it certainly did not disappoint. Eyebrows were raised when the team-sheets came out by the surprise inclusion of forgotten man Divock Origi, as well as talismanic figure Virgil van Dijk being left on the bench, but the mood around Anfield wasn’t to be diminished, fans were back, the atmosphere was raucous and the players knew they had a responsibility to fulfil.
Liverpool flew out of the traps from minute one, swarming all over their Italian counterparts and showing them exactly what Anfield is all about. Milan were unable to get their foot on the ball and it was attack after attack from the Reds, with Divock Origi missing a big chance to put his side ahead. Origi, who did not even make the substitutes bench against Leeds, was playing well though and really lifted the spirit of the crowd with a high energy opening quarter to the affair. It took just nine minutes for the deadlock to be broken, a typically swift Liverpool attack saw Trent Alexander-Arnold storm into the box before his cross was inadvertently deflected into the net by Fikayo Tomori. At this point, it was damaged limitation for Milan who really struggled to deal with the pace of Liverpool, notably down the left-hand side with Andy Robertson providing yet another vibrant display. Yet another lung-busting run from the Scot won Liverpool a penalty and the chance to make it two, his shot striking the arm of Ismael Bennacer. Mohamed Salah was unable to convert the spot-kick, his effort too close to Mike Maignan who made a smart save and excellently prevented Jota from scoring the rebound as well. Looking back, this was a defining moment in the game as Milan’s keeper kept them in the game in what was a tricky 40 minutes for Piolo’s side. Prior to the interval, Anfield was stunned as Milan responded with a quick-fire double. Despite showing no attacking intent, an excellently worked move allowed Rafael Leao to slide in Ante Rebic who slotted past Alisson Becker and silenced the crowd. Honours even moments before the half-time whistle, but things suddenly became difficult for the Reds as Milan found a second. Rejuvenated from their equaliser, the Rossoneri picked Liverpool apart down their left-hand side, Ante Rebic picked out Theo Hernandez excellently and although his effort was admirably kept out by Andy Robertson, former Manchester City player Brahim Diaz was on hand to convert the loose ball and send the Milan fans into raptures. The sting had been well and truly taken out of Liverpool and a big half was required to make sure this was a winning start to Group B.
Starting the second half like a house on fire, Liverpool responded in quick fashion and found the all important equaliser via a moment of real quality. A neat move down the right-hand side opened up the space for Divock Origi, and he expertly picked out Mohamed Salah with a delicate cushioned ball into the space for the Egyptian to poke home past Maignan. Salah thought he was marginally offside after hitting the back of the net, but VAR wasn’t required as his run was timed to perfection and Anfield was well and truly alive. There was a certain inevitability about the proceedings as a result of this goal, wave after wave of Liverpool pressure and carefully constructed attacks. To say there wasn’t a certain inevitability about how Liverpool found their third goal is an understatement as Jordan Henderson made it 3-2. The ball was headed clear from a corner to the edge of the box, and Henderson controlled a half-volley beautifully into the bottom corner to complete the turnaround, his first goal in the Champions League since 2014. It was a real moment of quality from Liverpool’s captain who deserved a moment like that on the biggest stage. That was the last of the goals in this richly entertaining Group B encounter. Milan’s two late first half goals provided a warning to Liverpool that switching off momentarily will cost you against Europe’s best, but Klopp’s men held on with a typically energetic final 20 minutes to get the three points and the start to the Group that can give you so much momentum going forward.
Playing Crystal Palace just three days after this Champions League encounter will have been something that Jurgen Klopp had an eye on as soon as the draw was made, and therefore his team selection tonight was a real indication of what we will see as Liverpool make a return to domestic action so swiftly. Virgil van Dijk’s long term injury has to be monitored so conservatively, so playing him three days after yet another full 90 vs Leeds United is illogical, whether it’s a Champions League game or not. His loss was Joe Gomez’ gain though, his first display since returning from a long-term injury too. These minutes were crucial for Gomez, and although not called into action on too many an occasion, he reminded us of his qualities and how integral he is to Klopp. Against Palace, the dynamic threat of the likes of Zaha, Olise and Edouard will cause Liverpool problems, but with a fully fit Virgil van Dijk available for selection alongside 1 of 3 other top quality centre backs, Jurgen will be delighted with the freshness of his options. On the other hand, Harvey Elliott’s long term injury will have undoubtedly played a part in the decision to start Divock Origi for this game. With Firmino still sidelined and Diogo Jota not just there as a back-up, options were limited and it was a great chance for Klopp to prove just how much Origi still has to give. By no means was it a breath-taking display, but Origi showed real character from the off and got at the Milan defence, as well as providing Salah with the equaliser. Going off to a standing ovation from the Liverpool crowd, it is the lift he needed and has changed mindsets almost immediately after being thought of as someone Liverpool need to get off their books. The key for Origi now is establishing himself as someone who can be relied upon, whether it’s as a substitution to effect games or be an asset from the off. Sadio Mane will have been disappointed to miss out, but the rest will benefit him and the scorer of Liverpool’s third goal at Leeds will most definitely come in to face Crystal Palace. Overall, this was a very pleasing night for Liverpool in many ways, not only did key players receive minutes, but they also dominated a top quality Milan side and showed that they mean serious business in this season’s Champions League campaign and beyond. Saturday’s test will be stern to say the least, Crystal Palace have been a proverbial thorn in the side of Liverpool on several occasions and will look to spoil what has been an immensely positive start to the season for Klopp’s men. Changes wise, I predict Van Dijk, Konate and Thiago to come into the side. Konate has waited patiently for his chance, but I feel like this is the right opportunity for him alongside the world’s best. Thiago was rested against Milan and after his impressive display against Leeds, his passing accuracy and control will provide Liverpool with rhythm against Vieira’s men. Anfield will be a cauldron of noise again as the race to gain a foot hold in this title quest begins.
Written by Daniel Ghorbal.
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