Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
Gegenpressing is the best playmaker there is, according to Jurgen Klopp; heavy metal football, as it were. But what happens if your gegenpressers blow their amps after 25 minutes? In Kiev, on Saturday evening, the one-note German found out.
Zinedine Zidane was kind enough to play the tune Liverpool’s manager wanted to hear. Eschewing the wide threat posed by Gareth Bale, the Frenchman kept faith with his customary European diamond. Congested, and bereft of wide passing options, Madrid were overwhelmed by relentless Red pressure. For 25 minutes.
Thrice, in the opening seven minutes, Liverpool’s press forced the game’s outstanding player Raphael Varane into last-ditch mode. Andy Robertson, spared a minder by Madrid’s left-leaning system, was having a ball. Gaps either side of Casemiro looked ripe for exploitation, too. So frazzled were the holders that Toni Kroos, of all people, passed the ball directly out to touch. But Madrid weathered that early storm, and Liverpool missed their chance.
Mo Salah hit the floor shortly after his side’s energy levels, removing any dilemma that may have plagued Marcelo. The Brazilian advanced freely from then on, as Madrid responded wisely to Klopp’s compact defensive unit by overloading wide areas. Liverpool, spent, failed to close down first-half crosses from both the rampaging left-back and the laterally-drifting Isco. Only an apt offside flag, denying Karim Benzema an opener, preserved parity.
Isco’s freedom to raid between the lines should have spelled trouble for the Reds, who consistently fail to defend such areas. But Liverpool’s compactness, partly achieved by a high defensive line, barred the way for the mostly ineffectual 26-year-old.
Liverpool’s vanishing press did, however, turn that high-line into a golden opportunity for Kroos. Oft popping up unmarked in the middle third, the German attempted several lofted through balls over the Liverpool defence; one of which led to Benzema forcing the first of two Loris Karius errors.
On Saturday, the Irish Times’ Ken Early waxed lyrical about Klopp’s apparent credentials as the “greatest manager in the world”, citing the “real faith” he places in his players. Yet, on the basis of this performance, on the biggest stage, any faith entrusted in Karius — or indeed his equally inept alternate, Simon Mignolet — was woefully misplaced. Even casual observers of the people’s game have known this for some time.
Zidane’s decision to omit Gareth Bale was not nearly as baffling. But the Welshman’s arrival, heralding the 4-3-3 Zidane should have started with, quickly wiped out Sadio Mané’s set-piece equaliser.
Switches of play, directed at Madrid full-backs Marcelo and Nacho, killed tired Liverpool legs. Nacho’s unpressed cross should have been converted by Isco. Marcelo, equally free, produced a moment of real magic from Bale.
Rampant on the break thereafter, in behind Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold, Madrid could have added three further goals — four if you count the Ronaldo chance foiled by a pesky pitch invader. Sandwiched in between was Karius’s second, and decisive, clanger.
Even in victory, over Roma and Manchester City, a tired Liverpool fell to pieces late on; prone to multiple concessions, with zero control evident. So it proved here. After 25 minutes.
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