Of all the teams in Europe, you would expect Liverpool to know a three goal lead is never enough.
Replicating last May’s era-defining comeback against Barcelona was too much to ask on Anfield’s first Champions League fixture of the season. Only just.
It was not Jurgen Klopp’s side flirting with football immortality on this occasion. Salzburg had evidently memorised the script of that semi-final and came close to matching it.
The Austrians were 3-0 down after 38 minutes, seemingly en route to embarrassment on Merseyside as Liverpool’s front three delivered a masterclass of attacking football.
Twenty-two minutes later Salzburg were level, admirably benefiting from what can only be described as unusual complacency from the European champions who sacrificed their usual endeavour to trip over the line that separates confidence from arrogance.
Fortunately for Liverpool, Mohamed Salah was in the kind of mood to stop the Austrians believing in miracles, striking the winner as Liverpool regained their earlier poise.
We will not forget the courage and idealism of Jesse Marsch’s side, but they were assisted by the sloppy hosts.
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“It was a lot of fun,” said the coach.
Klopp agreed up to a point. Specifically, the 38th minute.
“Then we opened the door and they were running through, chasing through it,” said the Liverpool coach.
Hee-Chan Hwang and Takumi Minamino were doing the sprinting as they located more space in Liverpool’s defence than anyone has uncovered since Virgil Van Dijk’s signing.
Liverpool must heed the warning.
“I am sure Brendan Rodgers will think if we protect like we did tonight, Jamie Vardy will run through at our goalkeeper five times,” said Klopp.
Klopp reminded his players that application preceded skill during their blistering start. He has not only built one of the most creative teams in Europe for the last two years, but one of the most hard working. That was the fundamental problem during the 22 minutes of mayhem. His replacing of Jordan Henderson and Gini Wijnaldum – who in fairness have been as overworked as any players at the start of the season – was an indication of where the manager lay most blame for a drop in intensity level.
There were few clues when Liverpool took a three goal lead.
The evening began with the usual formalities – a plentiful scattering of Roberto Firmino backheels, an assortment of Sadio Mane give-and-goes and enough Andy Robertson sprints to make Dina Asher-Smith look on in envy.
If there was a note of caution, there were moments when it did not actually feel like watching a Klopp team, putting one in mind of what it must have been like in The Bernabeu during the first Galactico era. The image is dazzling but it is not entirely a compliment.
On occasion it seemed too much, as if Liverpool were starting to play to the gallery rather than always pick the right pass. When the flicks and reverse ball were paying off so often, there was nothing The Kop could do but applaud, albeit with less hysteria on the last European night in this arena.
Liverpool’s players contributed to the sense of theatre. Before the comeback you felt you might be about to witness one of the most complete performances, not only of Klopp’s reign, but in the club’s rich European history.
They led after nine minutes, the Mane and Firmino combination a predictable source as the former Salzburg striker took advantage of the first of many perfectly weighted passes from the Brazilian.
Goal two might have had Klopp weeping in contentment as the epitome of all his football represents, full-backs Trent Alexander-Arnold and Robertson the furthest up the pitch to finish another exceptional move.
That the Scottish left-back finished on the edge of the six yard box – receiving the right back’s cross – summed up the adventure.
When Salah added the third with an assist from poor goalkeeping by Cican Stankovic, the Austrians must have sensed humiliation.
Instead they changed shape while persisting with an idealistic formation – encouraged by Liverpool’s sloppiness – and took advantage to reduce the deficit before half-time when Hee-Chan Hwang cleverly evaded Van Dijk’s desperate last gasp attempt to block.
The Liverpool scoreboard incorrectly read 3-3. It was a premonition.
The improbable looked likely when Dominik Szobosziai crossed for Minamino to volley Salzburg’s second just after the interval.
That was the cue for Erling Braut Haaland’s introduction, Marsch attacking Liverpool’s vulnerability. Haaland completed the comeback, tapping in after an hour, Minamino the provider.
Salzburg’s coach dashed down the touchline, booked for the corner flag celebration. This time it was the Austrian guilty of premature self-adulation.
The effect was to rouse the home crowd to adopt a more familiar vibe.
“At 3-3 the energy in the stadium picked up a little bit,” acknowledged Marsche.
“After 3-3 the people remembered we were at Anfield,” agreed Klopp.
Salah restored the lead on 68 minutes. It was not going to stop the Austrians coming but Liverpool held on for a crucial win, more riveting than anyone could have imagined.
“I thought after the game I was angry, but now I realise I am not angry,” said Klopp.
“I respect the performance of the opponent. We can do better. We will do better. It was an important lesson for us but I prefer to learn it in the game we won 4-3.”
Who said the group stages are boring?
Culled from The Telegraph UK