The last surviving 100% record in this season’s Champions League disappeared at Anfield along with Liverpool’s 28-game unbeaten home run, a sequence stretching back one year and one day, and yet it was a night of reward for Jürgen Klopp. A place in the quarter-finals of the Champions League is the prize that matters, and sufficient to console the Liverpool manager following a 1-0 defeat by Internazionale, but the resilience shown against the Italian champions will also offer compensation as the business end of the season approaches.
Praising Liverpool’s defensive work may seem strange on a night where the main talking points were Alexis Sánchez’s debatable dismissal and a superb finish from Lautaro Martínez, the striker profiting from a loose clearance by Joël Matip and Virgil van Dijk backing off as he shaped to shoot into the top corner from distance.
“That shouldn’t have happened,” the Liverpool manager said. But as well as Inter performed at Anfield, and as open as the last-16 second-leg contest was at times, Liverpool limited the visitors to precious few opportunities to recover the tie with and without a full complement of players. In terms of organisation and individual effort, Klopp’s defence provided the platform for a merited place in the last eight for a fourth time in five years.
Liverpool started as they finished against West Ham on Saturday; a little laboured, lacking their characteristic intensity and quality distribution. High winds, often Klopp’s bugbear, may have been a factor but Inter had few issues with the conditions. They opened with a confident swagger. Nutmegs, backheels and deft chips were a feature of their first-half performance – sometimes all in the same move – as Simone Inzaghi’s team attempted to chase down a 2-0 deficit with a touch of Milan style.
It was the power and movement of Michail Antonio and West Ham’s quality on the counterattack that tested Liverpool defensively at the weekend. In his Champions League programme notes, Klopp attributed the 1-0 victory to his team’s humility and greater desire. “They wanted it like crazy,” he said of West Ham, “but we wanted it even more.” David Moyes may beg to differ having seen Pablo Fornals and Manuel Lanzini squander a couple of sitters.
Here, as at the San Siro, it was Ivan Perisic’s penetrating runs behind Trent Alexander-Arnold and Denzel Dumfries’s adventure on the opposite flank that offered Inter hope. Also in keeping with the first leg, however, Inter’s impressive buildup ultimately created few problems for Alisson in the Liverpool goal. A routine catch from Dumfries’s tame half-volley and a more awkward save from Hakan Calhanoglu’s free-kick were the sum total of the Brazil goalkeeper’s interventions before the break. West Ham created more trouble for Alisson.
The Liverpool keeper received better protection from his defenders as a unit than he did at the weekend, when individual recoveries were crucial to his clean sheet, though had every reason to question the lapses that denied him a repeat against Inter. Matip was straight back in the starting lineup after recovering from illness and straight into his stride as the unsung foil to Van Dijk. Matip made two important early clearances as Sánchez and Martínez roamed inside the Liverpool penalty area. He almost made his presence felt in the Inter box with a header that smacked the face of Samir Handanovic’s crossbar with the visiting keeper rooted to the spot.
Matip’s chance marked the start of Liverpool’s improvement, following a break in play for a medical emergency on the Kop. It was no coincidence that Alexander-Arnold began to make his presence felt in the final third when the game restarted. The Liverpool right-back had been occupied defensively by Perisic up to that point. He was kept on the back foot but displayed good awareness and upper body strength to prevent Martínez breaking clear into the area following Sánchez’s neat dummy.
Liverpool lead the way for set-piece goals scored in the Champions League this season and Alexander-Arnold almost helped extend the tally. It was his free-kick that Matip glanced against the bar. Seconds later his corner picked out Van Dijk’s run to perfection inside a crowded box. The Dutchman gave a rueful smile as Milan Skriniar inadvertently deflected his header wide.
Liverpool were disciplined and structured in the face of Inter’s counterattacking and smart movement. The decisive goal, decisive only in the context of the game, came from the hosts’ only serious lapse when Matip’s attempted clearance was cut out by Perisic and turned on to Martínez by Sánchez. Van Dijk appeared to be inviting Mártinez to shoot from an improbable angle. The risk backfired as the striker brilliantly found the top corner.
Mártinez could have opened the scoring moments earlier but Andy Robertson read his intentions inside the area and made a vital block to deflect a shot wide. Matip also threw himself in the way of a drive from Calhanoglu as Liverpool kept Inter at a distance and defended in numbers when the situation demanded. Defeat will sting Klopp, it always does, but his team continue to fight their way through.