Sunday, 7 August 2016

Yesterday's Dismantling of the World's Best Gives Renewed Optimism for the Start of the Season

On a balmy summer's evening in London, Wembley stadium, usually split directly down the middle with two sets of opposing fans, played host to a spectacle that is unlikely to be unmatched in England for a fair few years. The stadium, with a capacity bordering on 90,000, became a sea of Red as Liverpool fans from all over the country (and indeed the world) descended upon the home of English football do watch their team line up against an opposition who have dominated the European stage over the past decade. It was a sight to truly behold, with the vastness of the stadium dominated by one fan group. It made for a wonderful, albeit mildly surreal, atmosphere.

As the teams lined up and the Liverpool fans dutifully applauded the name of Luis Suarez in unison, there was a definite feel of expectation, as well as a slight anxiousness for a good game of football. Nobody wanted to see a repeat of Rooney's dire testimonial against Everton which inexplicably finished 0-0. Football fans, first and foremost, want to be entertained, particularly when the result carries little to no significance. Immediately, the Liverpool starting 11, with Firmino acting as a makeshift forward in the absence of the injured Sturridge as he did for so much of last season, played with flare, with new signing Mane going close within 30 seconds.

What was instantaneously impressive was how Liverpool's attacking unit was so fluid and interchangeable. taking Mane as an example, one minute he was on the right, the next the centre, allowing a rapidity of movement which confused Barcelona's (admittedly weakened) back line. Such fluidity allowed space in behind for the likes of Clyne on the right wing and the impressive Lallana in the centre of the pitch, giving Liverpool an element of control in attacking areas which is virtually unheard of when the opposition is Barcelona.

Despite their wealth of talent, Barcelona could not settle and Liverpool deservedly took the lead after 15 minutes with a move that would have delighted Klopp, fitting in precisely with his mantra of counter pressing in the middle third. Winning the ball, Lallana immediately played the ball forward to Firmino, who then passed back to the charging Lallana who then squared the ball to Mane to open his account for the Reds. It was a delightfully simple piece of attacking football, laced with energy and devoid of complexity that has plagued the team's play in recent years. Mane, who is already showing signs of being as shrewd investment, delighted the 89,000 in attendance and a goal for his supreme efforts was a just reward.

As so often with friendlies, the game at times lulled, with Barcelona at times showing signs of their imperious talent, with Messi leaving Milner on his hands and knees with the use of phenomenal trickery that the footballing world has become so used to seeing. The Liverpool back line, however, stood firm, with new signing Ragnar Klavan looking assured and a more than capable replacement for the outgoing Martin Skrtel.  When the Estonian was signed, Klopp was quick to say that Klavan would not automatically be last choice in a central pairing and, on yesterday's evidence at least, the manager's words ring true. If performances in friendlies mean anything, then surely Klavan has earned a starting place against Arsenal next week, where his significant physical stature will be well suited against the cumbersome but ultimately effective Giroud. 

Where Klavan led, others followed. Mignolet made a few smart saves against his one time colleague Luis Suarez, whilst Milner was alive to the threat of Turan, preventing what would have been a certain equaliser. As the half time whistle blew, although there was no doubt that Liverpool were good value for their lead, there was a sense that Barcelona would up their game in the second half and that the pendulum would swing in the favour of the Catalans' favour.

What occurred instead as the second half started was the most scintillating passage of play by Liverpool for a long while. The introduction of Divock Origi gave the front line renewed impetus, which was immediately rewarded with a goal as ex-Red Javier Mascharano diverted into his own net under pressure from Jordan Henderson. Wembley was elated, even if it was a that point only half full due to the vast numbers polishing off their half time pints. Those with more in their glass were punished further as a minute later as Kevin Stewart dispossessed serial trophy winner Sergio Busquets before slicing open the Barcelona defence with a ball to Origi who expertly slid the ball into the net. Wembley was in dreamland. Friendly or not, its not every day you see your team taking a team of Barcelona's stature to the cleaners. It should have been more, as only minutes later Firmino planted wide a chance that was arguably easier than the one Origi dispatched.

As the game progressed, the mass of substitutions inevitably had an adverse effect on the tempo of the game. The standing ovation for Luis Suarez was a particular highlight, as the Liverpool supporters stood in unison to applaud a man whose supreme talent was only surpassed by his Herculean efforts during his time at Anfield. Once Messi and co had departed the pitch, so did many in the crowd, satisfied with the afternoon's work, which was finished off with a fantastic looping header from Grujic who had entered the fray minutes earlier. The rout was completed, and although it was merely a friendly against a team who clearly weren't at the same intensity as Liverpool, the manner of the victory will give many massive hope for the game at the Emirates next week, particularly as Arsenal are having to rely on a very inexperienced defensive line in the absence of Mertesaker. Should the likes of Firmino, Mane, Coutinho and Origi gel in the manner they did at Wembley and barring any Mignolet errors, there should only be one outcome.  

Man of the Match: Mane

Moment of the Match: Origi's goal to make it 3