In a society beset by intra-community division, increasing fears of global war, and a plethora of domestic crisis in the realms of housing, justice, and public health, worrying about Liverpool’s upcoming Champions League final in Kyiv is, all things considered, a rather pleasant thing to be anxious about.
There are plenty of reasons to be nervous about the Reds’ prospects in Ukraine. There are the deepening injury issues which mean that the first-team squad has been reduced to its component parts and a smattering of lads on the bench who nobody really wants to see making an appearance any time soon. There’s the problem of current form; after a sustained period of success against top level football teams, we’ve won in just one of our last five games, including failure to beat West Bromwich Albion and Stoke City, who’ll both be Championship sides come next week. And there’s also the fact that Real Madrid are dead f*cking good at football.
The weekend’s narrow defeat away at Chelsea on Sunday must, of course, be taken in its context. This was a Liverpool side recovering from probably the club’s most important game in almost a decade, with just the one change made to an eleven that looked out on its feet come the full-time whistle at the Stadio Olympico only four days previously. It was also a game that, thanks to the points advantage enjoyed by the Reds, plus the tantalising thought of the final to come, mattered an awful lot more to Antonio Conte’s men than it did to Jurgen Klopp’s.
Still, Liverpool controlled possession and looked the more dangerous for prolonged periods, and probably had the better of the chances. But it’s hard to state that Liverpool were truly the ‘better’ side. Sure, it was a game low on quality from both teams, but Chelsea executed their game plan — to sit deep, allow no space for runners in behind, and to constrict the space between the Reds’ midfield and attack — to much greater success than Liverpool did theirs.
A few areas of concern reared their head during the ninety minutes in Southwest London. Firstly, the Chelsea goal comes from a lack of communication between Dejan Lovren and the previously impervious Virgil van Dijk, both flat-footed and ball-watching as blue shirts swarm the area unchallenged. Furthermore, the meek second-half display suggested at no point that a credible challenge to Chelsea’s lead was forthcoming. But most worryingly of all, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino looked way off the pace once again.
The pair have been unplayable for the vast majority of the season, the two most important figures in the Reds’ ascent to the Champions League final. But in the recent games against Stoke, Roma, and now Chelsea, they haven’t quite looked themselves. The movement is less effective, the combinations and one-twos aren’t coming off anywhere near as often, and the goals have dried up.
Of course, it’s most likely that it’s just a slightly off week — the culmination of a gargantuan effort on both players’ parts in the course of what has been an incredibly intense and exhausting season already. They just need a bit of time off to recharge, refresh, and then they go again in time for Brighton next weekend.
But those two are my main worry as we edge closer to May 26.
Say what you like about the defence, the midfield, or the goalkeeper, it’s the forwards that are the real concern. The way Liverpool are going to have to beat Real Madrid is by outscoring them. By saying, “yeah, you’re really good and all that, and we can’t stop you from being really good, so we’re just going to have to be even better than you.” It is Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané who will win the game for Liverpool, and we need to ensure they’re at the peak of their powers on the night for it to be possible.
Since Jurgen Klopp arrived at Liverpool, there is a singular tactical blueprint which has most commonly been used to frustrate the Reds. Sit deep, restrict the space, and try to nick a winner. It doesn’t always work, but it’s the thing that seems most difficult for us to deal with consistently.
Real Madrid won’t set up that way in Kyiv. The bravado, machismo, and ego of the club, the manager, the players, and Florentino Perez won’t allow for that. But it does give them something to change to if they take the lead. It gives them a way to get to full-time if they get their noses in front just after the break. It gives them a way to close the game down.
Liverpool made it to the final by blitzing Porto, Manchester City and Roma early on in a blur of movement, speed, and sheer quality. Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah were at the centre of it.
They’ll need to be back at their glorious best if the Reds are to return home victorious from Kyiv.