Champions League – Talking Points from the Semi-Final Stage

Champions League – Talking Points from the Semi-Final Stage

Chris Williams reporting from Liverpool and Manuel Veth from Munich –

As the dust settles from two remarkably different Champions League semi final-first leg fixtures, Chris Williams and Manuel Veth bring you their view on what was learnt, and in some cases – already known.

Liverpool vs AS Roma – 5-2

Remarkable, unbelievable, scintillating, breathtaking – just some of the adjectives that were bounded around the press area after the final whistle at Anfield. Even two late away goals failed to take the shine of what was a dominant performance by Liverpool – in their first Champions League semi-final for 10 years.

Talking to colleagues on the way home from the stadium it became apparent that for a segment of this nature I couldn’t call it “what we learned from Liverpool vs Roma”. The hot-takes from the first 90 minutes were all ‘known facts’ but still, Roma were powerless to act – however, they were able to exploit one, leaving the second leg not quite the formality it had been on the hour mark.

Simply Salah

Mohamed Salah, an Egyptian, a winger, a humble man when interviewed – a goal machine. People from Liverpool talk only about one goal machine, one striker, who has never been eclipsed – Ian Rush. Those conversations have now turned to Salah, who is on the cusp of breaking a Liverpool all time season goal scoring record. Why is this so special? Well that mantra has so far stood the test of time against the likes of Robbie Fowler and Michael Owen, it may now fall to a winger.

Jürgen Klopp described his forward as ‘impossible to defend against’ and few would argue. The German also described the Egyptian’s first goal on Tuesday night as a ‘genius strike’ – unquestionable.

Receiving the ball on the edge of the Roma box, Salah cut inside and dispatched a venomous shot. It was at such a speed, that the crack against the metal frame – at the base of the goal – was audible from the half way line. It sent fifty thousand people into dreamland and commentators from across the globe struggled to impart what they had just witnessed.

Not content with exposing his old side just the once, the 25-year-old went on to score another and provide the assist for Liverpool’s third and fourth goal.

As the game teetered on the edge of a cricket score it was the newly crowned ‘King of Egypt’ that had broken down a visiting Roman army.

Mohamed Salah of Liverpool celebrates as he scores his sides second goal with Roberto Firmino during the UEFA Champions League Semi Final First Leg match between Liverpool and A.S. Roma at Anfield on April 24, 2018 (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Liverpool’s pressing is an art form

Klopp’s Reds have a lot going for them. Arguably, at this moment in time, they own the best player in world football – on current form. Playing in an atmosphere that is stratospherically different to other Champions League nights in England, they compete at a tempo and level that once endured it leaves their opponents shell-shocked and vulnerable.

Roma will have known this, they will have seen Manchester City fall but yet, Eusebio Di Francesco could do nothing to hold back (to quote an old lyric) ‘the red machine in full effect’.

James Milner, Georginio Wijnaldum and Jordan Henderson dominated their Italian opponents, as did Liverpool’s front three – it is remarkable to watch. They hunt in packs – harassing and haranguing opponents like summer wasps rapidly deploying their sting. The speed at which they close down opposition players, and then move the ball into attack makes football look so simple.

It is this speed and ferocity, in which the multi directional press takes place, that disorientates their opponents. It must become an outer body experience for those under the cosh – it can be the only reason for world class players to freeze on such a grand scale. It leaves them disheveled and their coaches bemoaning usually dependable players with tales of unwon personal battles – problems with movement and positioning .

One-two, one two three, one two three four, five-nil

If Liverpool’s press is rampant then it is no surprise to hear that over at the business end of the pitch, they have become über clinical – the most potent strike force in European football? Most definitely.

Tuesday night saw Liverpool hit five goals once again in a Champions League fixture. This season they have put seven past Maribor at home, seven away to Spartak Moscow and finally five away to FC Porto. In total so far they have found the net an incredible 38 times since the competition got underway in September – they also brushed aside TSG Hoffenheim at the playoff stage 6:3 on aggregate.

The much talked about front three each registered a goal against Roma – five in total and four of the five were created by a combination of Salah, Sadio Mane or Roberto Firmino. If they aren’t scoring the goals they are setting them up.

Who then set up the other goal on Tuesday? That would be 32-year-old James Milner, who now holds the record for most assists in a Champions League season. The game versus Roma saw the elder statesman hit his ninth assist of Liverpool’s campaign – beating the record held by Wayne Rooney and Neymar.

The occasional frailty

The arrival of Virgil van Dijk coincided with Loris Karius being named by Klopp as his ‘number one’ goalkeeper and, for the most part, this has addressed earlier concerns of defensive issues.

However, as frighting as Liverpool are going forward they are still capable of the odd error. At this level it is often punished – and so it was by Roma.

Tiredness and the withdrawal of Salah allowed the Italian side to steal two vital away goals from a game that appeared far past them – even if one goal a shade lucky.

For the first, fingers were pointed at Dejan Lovren. The Croatian’s positioning allowed Edin Dzeko the space he needed – the defender then misjudged the flight of Radja Nainggolan’s cross. Quality as that possessed by the Bosnian doesn’t need an invitation to punish – and he did to excellent effect.

Nainggolan was able to pick his pass due to the momentary lapse of the press mentioned above, it was a ‘Swiss cheese’ goal for Liverpool. The visitors pouncing on combined errors to give them thoughts of hope in the return leg next week.

With Liverpool now suffering key injuries to both Emre Can and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in midfield – and the gulf in quality from their front three to their bench options – the Reds must stay fully focused for the entire 90 minutes. A key attribute if they harbour ambitions to be victorious in both Rome and Kiev.

This slight negative shouldn’t distract from what was an unbelievable night, and one that will live long in the memory of all that witnessed it. Adding yet another fixture to the list of ‘memorable European nights’ Anfield has seen.

Bayern vs Real Madrid – 1-2

Bayern finally get the opponent they were craving

Dominant in the Bundesliga the Rekordmeister won their sixth Bundesliga title in a row two weeks ago with a convincing victory over regional rivals Augsburg. Bayern have recorded just two defeats in domestic competitions this season, and as a result, the full focus has been on winning the Champions League.

On the one hand, Bayern want to win another treble, which would further cement Jupp Heynckes’ legacy, on the other hand, Bayern also want to show the rest of the world that their dominance in the Bundesliga is not to blame on playing in a weak competition but rather on their strength.

Now after the first leg Bayern have demonstrated that they are on Real Madrid’s level and statistically Bayern even dominated the Spanish side – Bayern had 60% possession, 17 shots, five shots on target and 14 shots inside the box but only managed the one goal. At the same time, the result against a top Spanish side once again went against them as Real punished the sort of individual mistakes that Bayern might have gotten away with in the Bundesliga.

Injury impacts

Arjen Robben, in the fifth minute, and defender Jérôme Boateng, in the 33rd minute, left the field with injuries. While Niklas Süle did well to compensate Boateng’s departure, Bayern struggled to replace Robben.

Heynckes brought on Thiago for the Dutch winger, and while the Spaniard is an excellent player, he also lacks the pace that Bayern needed to stretch apart Real’s backline. As a result, the static in Bayern’s attack was off balance with most of the attacking plays being developed through the left-wing where Frank Ribéry terrorised Real’s backline, to begin with.

But Bayern’s one-dimensional attack allowed Real head coach Zinedine Zidane to concentrate on the right half of the field, and by moving back Lucas Vazquez towards the end of the match, Bayern were effectively taken out of the game.

Arjen Robben's injury had a big impact on the semifinal between Bayern and Real (Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Bongarts/Getty Images)

Arjen Robben’s injury had a big impact on the semifinal between Bayern and Real (Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Bongarts/Getty Images)

Furthermore, in the absence of Robben, and with Thiago drifting towards the centre of the pitch, Joshua Kimmich was forced to push forward. As a result, Rafinha was left exposed on his own when the centrebacks moved forward to join the attack, which ultimately led to Real’s second goal.

Bayern surprisingly in-effective

Bayern dominated the stats with ten to three corners, 14 to four shots inside the box and two to four forced goalkeeper saves with a ball possession stat of 60% to 40%. In fact, Bayern’s statistics read like those of a team that blew out their opponent. In comparison, Bayern’s stats were better then those of Liverpool, who the previous night picked Roma apart with a 5-2 victory – Roma had 52% ball possession and led with six to five shots on target and 14 to eight shots inside the box.

The difference between Liverpool and Bayern was that Liverpool were effective in putting away their chances. With Ribéry the main threat and Robert Lewandowski taken out of the game – his biggest moment came when he ran into Thomas Müller to prevent a clear goal scoring chance in the 67th minute – Real’s defence almost had it too easy despite the Bavarian’s dominance.

The moods in each camp

Zinedine Zidane and Toni Kroos both spoke to German television following the match, and both were quick to point out that this tie is not over yet. The Bayern camp, in the meantime, also remains optimistic.”We dominated the game and were simply to in-effective, but we remain optimistic and will give everything in Madrid”, sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic told the media at the Allianz Arena.

“It was a good start to the first half, but then we were too naive. We had plenty of opportunities, and I had to laugh when it was only 1-1 at halftime. Overall, we should have gotten a better result. Everything is still possible. But we have done ourselves no favours”, Müller added.

Last season Bayern overcame a 2-1 home defeat by beating Real Madrid 2-1 at the Bernabeu, and it was only due to some questionable refereeing that Real ultimately went through. But last season’s result and Juventus’ 3-1 victory on the road highlight that this tie is not decided yet and that there is still everything to play for in the second leg.

Manuel Veth is the owner and Editor in Chief of the Futbolgrad Network. He also works as a freelance journalist and among others works for the Bundesliga and Pro Soccer USA. He holds a Doctorate of Philosophy in History from King’s College London, and his thesis is titled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States,” which is available HERE. Originally from Munich, Manuel has lived in Amsterdam, Kyiv, Moscow, Tbilisi, London, and currently is located in Victoria BC, Canada.  Follow Manuel on Twitter @ManuelVeth. Or contact him via email: 

Chris Williams is a freelance European football journalist. Covering the Bundesliga, Premier League and both of UEFA’s European club competitions. Published in both local and international publications, he also contributes to television and radio across the globe. A member of the UK’s Sports Journalist Association and the International Sports Press Association (AIPS). Follow Chris Williams on Twitter @Chris78Williams