For Internazionale, it had the feel of an impossible job. In 34 previous European ties in which Liverpool had won the first leg away from home, the Premier League team had never failed to progress. Liverpool brought all-conquering form into the tie as they sought to confirm their place in the Champions League quarter-finals. Inter had been patchy.
Yet the Italian champions had a blueprint to manoeuvre the ball efficiently and, when Lautaro Martínez aimed a firecracker into the far top corner from outside the area after the hour – it had Alisson beaten from the moment of discharge – they had the scent of something more.
Liverpool had hit the post through Joël Matip and Mohamed Salah, although they had struggled to unlock Inter in open play. Now they faced a test of their nerve. To great delight and no little relief, they passed it.
The task was made easier when Alexis Sánchez was sent off almost immediately after the goal for a second bookable offence. The former Arsenal and Manchester United attacker could have no complaints about his first caution at the end of the first half; he was late and reckless when he went into Thiago, raking his studs down the lower leg of his opponent.
The moment that Sánchez will want to have again saw him stretch for the ball and touch it as the passions surged after Martínez’s strike. But he caught Fabinho with the follow-through and, if it looked over-exuberant rather than malicious, it added up to him being out of control.
Inter complained bitterly, with the assistant manager, Massimiliano Farris, also sent off after going too far with his protests but, even with 10 men, the visitors retained a puncher’s chance. Liverpool, though, saw the game out and, in the final analysis, they did so with a measure of comfort.
Although the possibility existed for something outlandish from Inter, they did not come close again. The Liverpool defence had generally got feet in, they had won the one-on-ones – the Martínez goal not withstanding. And, in the closing stages, as tempers threatened to boil over, it was they who were the likelier scorers. Salah hit the upright again and the substitute Luis Díaz was denied by a remarkable saving block by Arturo Vidal in stoppage time after a cross from Trent Alexander-Arnold.
The ball would not go in for Salah or Liverpool and it would be a first home loss for them since the one to Fulham in the Premier League just over a year ago.
Salah would mutter about over-confidence, suggesting that lessons must be learned. Liverpool had won all seven of their previous Champions League ties this season while they had entered on a run of 13 wins and one draw in all competitions – and that was the 0-0 in the Carabao Cup semi-final first leg against Arsenal. They would get through in the second.
In the end, all that mattered was that they did not concede again. Inter had come up valiantly short.
What bothered Jürgen Klopp was that Liverpool’s counterpress did not work and, for long spells, Inter could show an easy confidence on the ball. Their touches were true, their movement slick and all that was missing was the final pass. There were times, with Liverpool holding a typically high last line, when it looked on in behind them.
It was a night when Klopp’s players could not allow their focus to drop and the manager could be grateful to Andy Robertson for his pace on the cover and a couple of important defensive interventions from Alexander-Arnold in the opening quarter.
Before half-time, Marcelo Brozovic tried to usher Martínez through only to see Virgil van Dijk hoover up the ground and slam the door shut while a big moment for Inter came in the 41st minute when Hakan Calhanoglu whipped in a low free-kick from the right, bouncing it just in front of Alisson. The goalkeeper was not distracted by the onrushing Inter players and showed strong and safe hands to push the ball away from goal.
Liverpool’s threat before the break came entirely from set-pieces, echoing the first leg when both of their goals – scored by Roberto Firmino and Salah – had followed dead-ball deliveries.
Matip sent a free header from an Alexander-Arnold free-kick on 31 minutes against the crossbar and, from the next action – an Alexander-Arnold free-kick – Van Dijk almost got in only to glance his header off Milan Skriniar and past the post. Alexander-Arnold would whistle a free-kick wide in first-half stoppage-time.
Inter have never lost a European first-leg at home by a two-goal margin and the set-back had come during a string of poor results – namely four games without a victory in Serie A, a run that has seen them edged out of top spot by their city rivals, Milan, and which only ended last Friday with the 5-0 victory over bottom-of-the-table Salernitana.
Simone Inzaghi’s team were impressive, although they rode their luck when Salah hit the post on 52 minutes when he had plenty of the goal to aim at following a lob from Thiago and Samir Handanovic’s failure to punch clear at full length.
Martínez had flickered at the end of a quick Inter incision, seeing his shot from inside a pocket of space deflect off Robertson and trickle wide, and the move for the goal followed a loose ball up the line from Matip. Ivan Perisic collected and, when Sánchez found Martínez, Van Dijk did not get close enough.
Martínez’s shot was a celebration of technique and audacity and his team had hope. Then they had 10 men. Liverpool would get the job done.