A week ago, everyone was picking Manchester City to cruise past Liverpool to the Champions League semifinals. The Reds would put up a fight in Anfield and probably get a few goals, but a 3-0 win was not on anyone’s minds.
Then the unthinkable happened. First, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain scored from outside the box. Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane added goals and Liverpool was 90 minutes away from a spot in the semifinals.
There was always going to be offense as Liverpool has only suffered seven shutouts this season. One came on Saturday due to lineup rotation. And another was in the second leg of a tie with Porto that Liverpool had already decided.
The early season shutouts to lower teams Swansea and West Brom are things of the past. The Reds have scored at least two goals in 11 of their last 12 matches.
The more impressive parts of this performance are the game plan and the defense. Manager Jurgen Klopp chose his best 11 but made sure to slot James Milner and Jordan Henderson in the midfield. With these two alongside the more attacking Ox and three forwards, Liverpool had the perfect balance to both defend and quickly counter-attack.
Klopp realized that a Pep Guardiola team would always make short passes and try to control the game through possession. He allowed the light blues 66 percent of the ball and almost double the passes, 738-379. Klopp’s team was happy to find the inevitable holes in a lineup that included Kevin de Bruyne and Fernadinho mismatched as defensive midfielders.
Liverpool easily weaved through the best defense in the Premier League, netting their three-goal within the first 30 minutes. But as a team that usually sits back and defends many wondered if City could push back.
Last time at Anfield, Liverpool jumped out to a 4-1 lead in the 68th minute only to allow City to scrape back two goals and almost steal a draw. On December 22, a 2-0 lead at the 56th minute against Arsenal turned into a 3-3 draw at full time.
But the new Liverpool defense, led by big transfer Virgil Van Dijk and long-time captain Jordan Henderson, kept the clean sheet. Despite City’s best efforts of 11 shots on goal, Liverpool held fast for the 3-0 victory.
The job certainly is not done yet as City will bring their all in the Etihad. But an away goal would likely seal the match for the Reds and book a date with one of the best three teams in the world. Their next opponents will almost surely be either the 2018 German champions, the 2018 Spanish champions or last year’s Champions League winners.
Liverpool has probably had the easiest road of the four to the semifinals. So the next match will be a real test, but keep the defense up and they’ll be up for the task.
At their return to the Champions League after a two-year absence, many thought Liverpool would be at least a year away from a title challenge. But their German boss has accelerated the plan and reached the semifinals. They now have gotten farther than anyone expected and have the opportunity of a lifetime.
But first, they must take care of business in the Etihad. Take the schedule one match at a time, survive and advance. As the underdogs in the tournament, they continue to have nothing to lose.