Amidst all the talk of Liverpool’s new age stars, it was two of the club’s long-time heroes that delivered a late smash and grab raid in the first leg of the Champions League last-16 tie against Inter Milan on Wednesday.
As 18-year-old Harvey Elliot made his European debut and new signing Luis Diaz came on as a second-half substitute, goals from Roberto Firmino and Mo Salah in the final 15 minutes fired Liverpool to a 2-0 victory at the San Siro.
Forced to weather a strong start to the second-half by the reigning Serie A champion, Liverpool scored with their first and only shots on target to take a commanding lead back to Anfield on March 8.
Having already held the title of the Premier League’s youngest ever debutant, Elliot became Liverpool’s youngest ever player to start a European fixture – excluding qualifiers – and at times looked unnerved at the center of a raucous San Siro atmosphere.
The teenage’s bright future alongside January arrival Diaz and Diogo Jota looks set to leave the club in safe hands when the trident of Sadio Mane, Firmino and Salah are ultimately broken up, but Wednesday showed the old guard are still the main men when the chips are down.
Far from their best, Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp reflected on his team’s “not brilliant, but good enough” performance – blighted only by a suspected ankle injury to Jota, forced off for Firmino at half-time.
“You cannot come here and hope you have a brilliant day, and that’s the only chance of getting a result,” Klopp told BT Sport. “We had not a brilliant day, but a good enough day to be the deserved winner.”
A high-tempo opening to the game saw Liverpool start quickly, with Mane – newly crowned Africa Cup of Nations hero with Senegal – squandering two of the visitors’ best early chances.
‘We needed to be ready to suffer’
Inter were inches away from taking the lead when Ivan Perisic’s low cross found Hakan Çalhanoğlu, the Turkish midfielder crashing a thunderous strike off the underside of Alisson’s crossbar.
With Perisic spearheading a surging start to the second-half for Inter, Klopp rung the changes. A triple substitution just before the hour-mark saw Elliot, Fabinho and Mane depart with Naby Keita, Jordan Henderson and new-signing Diaz enter.
But it was the half-time substitute, Firmino, who made the breakthrough, the Brazilian darting across Alessandro Bastoni to superbly head an Andy Robertson corner across goalkeeper Samir Handanovic and just inside the far post.
The goal had come against the run of play, yet within 10 minutes Liverpool had doubled their lead. Salah reacted fastest to captain Virgil van Dijk’s nod down to rattle – via a deflection – a shot past a helpless Handanovic.
It was Salah’s eighth goal in seven Champions League matches this season.
Having seen out the closing stages, Van Dijk said that Inter’s dominance during periods of the game hadn’t come as a surprise to Liverpool
“Everyone expected to be under pressure, because they are a very good team and it is the Champions League,” Van Dijk told BT Sport.
“We needed to be ready to suffer and do the hard work, and we definitely did. Happy days.”
Bayern woes continue
In Wednesday’s other Champions League fixture, Kingsley Coman spared Bayern Munich’s blushes as a disappointing week for the German club continued with a 1-1 draw against Red Bull Salzburg in Austria.
Still reeling from Saturday’s stunning 4-2 defeat to Vfl Bochum in the Bundesliga – wherein they are pursuing a tenth straight title – Bayern fell behind to Chukwubuike Adamu’s first-half strike.
Salzburg’s valiant defending looked to have secured a famous win before Coman tapped home a heartbreaking injury time equalizer.