Jurgen Klopp has Liverpool believing, now the test is to make it last
It's in danger of being overlooked due to the ongoing inquests into Manchester United's lifeless performance, but Liverpool were pretty darned good on Thursday night. The 2-0 scoreline was the very least they deserved from such a dominant display, and while the tie is certainly not over, Jurgen Klopp's side are now strong favourites to advance to the last eight of the Europa League.
If Liverpool can score an away goal next week at Old Trafford then United's task will be a monumental one, but first and foremost they must ensure that they match the kind of defensive intensity they showed while completely smothering United at Anfield. Liverpool outworked their rivals and played with a much higher intensity than Louis van Gaal's side, but it's unlikely United will play so poorly next week in front of their own supporters.
While still not entirely trustworthy, there are signs that Liverpool are finally beginning to find some consistency. Certainly in defence they have looked much more secure of late and even Alberto Moreno -- so often a weak link at left-back -- looked secure on Thursday. United need to score twice next week to even have a chance of taking the tie to a penalty shoot out, while they would have to find three goals to go through without spot kicks. To put that task in perspective, that's more goals than Liverpool have conceded in their last seven games in all competitions.
Goalkeeper Simon Mignolet has five clean sheets from his last seven appearances and at no stage did he ever look like being beaten on Thursday night. United managed just one effort on target -- a tame shot by Morgan Schneiderlin that went straight at the Belgian keeper -- and they failed to even win a single corner. That's almost unheard of, but it's testament to how well Liverpool defended from the front. From back to front Liverpool worked tirelessly to close down space and pressure the man in possession, and United had no answer to it.
Liverpool's central defenders were often criticised under former boss Brendan Rodgers, but the increased protection they get in Klopp's tactical set up has significantly helped them all. The work rate and organised pressing of those in front of them means the defenders have far less to do than they often did under Rodgers and they are thriving as a result.
Kolo Toure has been at the club for almost three years now, but his best form has come in recent months under Klopp. The veteran Ivorian has been almost faultless when called upon in 2016 and can consider himself somewhat unfortunate not to be one of the first names on the team sheet. The reason he's not is that Mamadou Sakho and Dejan Lovren are showing signs of developing a strong partnership.
Sakho has had his ups and downs since moving to Anfield in the summer of 2013, and prior to Klopp's arrival he had only ever really looked effective when playing as part of a back three. He's still prone to the occasional moment of madness but overall his performances under Klopp have greatly improved. He was excellent against United, where his coolness in possession and efficient use of the ball really caught the eye.
Equally impressive was his defensive partner Lovren, who has arguably been Liverpool's most improved player this year. Written off by many supporters, the £20 million signing from Southampton has shown great strength of character to rebound from a dreadful first season at Anfield and has now changed a lot of fans perceptions of him. Aside from one horrific mistake against West Ham at Anfield earlier in the season, the Croatian has had an impressive year. His performances since returning to the side following a recent hamstring injury have been top drawer and he was rock solid against United.
Liverpool will need him and Sakho to continue this encouraging form when they go to Old Trafford next week. A 2-0 lead looks fairly secure right now, but an early goal for United changes the dynamic of the tie completely and Liverpool will almost certainly need to weather an early storm as Van Gaal's men look to make amends for their poor showing at Anfield. The home crowd will be raucous in the opening stages and unless the Merseysiders grab an early goal that more or less kills the tie, they will surely have to withstand a spell of sustained pressure at some point.
At the other end of the pitch things are a lot more up and down. It's feast or famine. They can score six against Villa and then have to rely on a dubious penalty to beat Augsburg over two legs. After tearing Manchester City apart they took over an hour before even managing a shot of any note against struggling Crystal Palace last weekend. So the challenge for the Reds now is to follow up their lively first leg showing with a repeat performance at Old Trafford.
Now that Klopp finally has all of his attacking players fit at the same time things should improve as they get used to playing with each other. While Sturridge was relatively quiet against United, the three players behind him all enjoyed themselves and caused United a lot of trouble. If they repeat that next week, Liverpool will surely go through.
As highlighted on ESPN FC by Steve Kelly earlier this week, Roberto Firmino is really beginning to make his mark on English football. His first three or four months at the club were mostly disappointing, punctuated with one or two excellent displays here and there. Now that trend has been reversed. Since the turn of the year he's mostly been excellent with only the occasional disappointing performance thrown in.
While not yet prolific, he is finding the net with regularity now and he's also a creative force. It was his clever pass that led to the opening goal as Nathaniel Clyne was brought down for a penalty converted by Daniel Sturridge. Firmino also created good chances for Sturridge and Adam Lallana before finding the net himself in the second half. One piece of skill on the right flank had the crowd off their feet and made poor old Daley Blind look rather foolish, and it was a great night for the in-form Brazilian.
Firmino is now beginning to deliver the kind of performances Liverpool fans expected when their club paid close to £30 million for him from German club Hoffenheim last summer, and Kopites will be looking to him to continue his recent hot streak next week and fire the Reds into the quarterfinals at the expense of their most bitter rivals.
The first leg went exactly as Klopp would have wanted it, with his side putting on a first class performance in the cauldron-like atmosphere of Anfield to set themselves up for the second leg. The job is only half done though and more of the same will be required next week, as United cannot possibly perform as badly as this again.