If Liverpool’s results have generally not matched their performances this season, this was the night that changed.
Dreadful performance, dreadful result. Dreadful evening.
Jurgen Klopp’s side had hoped to take control of Champions League Group C, but instead they lost their grip entirely. A 2-0 defeat to Red Star Belgrade in the Rajko Mitic Stadium leaves the Reds in a precarious position. With games against Paris Saint-Germain and Napoli to come, last season’s finalists are in danger of missing out on the knockout stage this time around.
They can only blame themselves, too. If their last European away game was bad, this was even worse. Knocked in Naples, they were battered in Belgrade. As the home side revelled, Klopp’s own red stars suffered. For Liverpool, this was an alarming throwback.
How quickly things change in football. A fortnight ago the Reds were comfortable, 4-0 winners at Anfield on a night when Red Star looked every inch the minnows, happy to be there and expecting to be beaten.
Not here. Here, in the stadium they call the Marakana, the Serbian champions issued the rudest of awakenings. Want an easy game in the Champions League? Play well, then, and make it easy. Liverpool certainly did not.
They were two down at half time, courtesy of two Milan Pavkov goals in the space of seven minutes. The first, headed home from a corner, was worrying enough. The second, driven in from 25 yards, was worse still. Nobody, goalkeeper Alisson Becker included, will want to see it again.
It took 70 minutes for Liverpool to force a save from Milan Borjan, the Red Star goalkeeper, an appalling return given the talent on display – although how Daniel Sturridge and Sadio Mane failed to take gilt-edged chances in either half remains a mystery. Liverpool hit the woodwork twice after the break, but deserved little more than they got. They are, as Klopp admitted afterwards, struggling to “find their mojo.”
We were told this would be a different Red Star to the one seen at Anfield and the evidence was there from the off. Their fans, banned from the last two European fixtures, were crammed in well before kick-off, and their presence – and their noise – certainly seemed to embolden Vladan Milojevic’s side, who began with purpose and intensity. They are unbeaten in 28 home games, and their confidence was clear.
Still, Liverpool should have been ahead 18 minutes in, Sturridge inexplicably firing over from six yards after excellent build-up play from Mane and Adam Lallana down the left. A bad miss, and one which was punished within five minutes as Pavkov headed Red Star ahead.
Dreamland, for the home side. Even more so seven minutes later when the same player added a second. Alisson may rue his decision to go for the shot with his left hand, but the Brazilian was not alone in erring. Liverpool were remarkably slack in ceding possession, and alarmingly slow to react defensively. It was the first time they had conceded twice in the first half of a Champions League game since 2014, when Brendan Rodgers’ side were slaughtered by Real Madrid.
Red Star, patently, are no Real Madrid, though at times in the first half Liverpool made them appear so. Klopp’s side were sloppy, hesitant, leaden-footed, pick your own adjective. Their attack failed, their defence struggled, their midfield vanished. On the sideline, the manager’s body language spoke volumes.
Jurgen Klopp’s response at half-time was to make two substitutions, Roberto Firmino and Joe Gomez replacing Sturridge and Trent Alexander-Arnold, whose form has nosedived.
The effect was negligible, Red Star happy to sit in and defend, challenging the visitors to play their way through. With Salah off-form, Mane shoved out to the right and none of the midfield trio possessing the guile or speed to make a difference, Liverpool looked short of ideas, keeping the ball with minimal threat. Credit Red Star, who protected their penalty area well and deserved their victory.
As time ran out, Klopp called for Divock Origi, whose last European outing for the Reds came in the 2016 Europa League final and who spent last season treading water with Wolfsburg in Germany. That’s what kind of night it was, a night when Liverpool sought control and found chaos. A night when they lost their grip on the group.
“Can you put your finger on what went wrong?” Klopp was asked afterwards. “I only have 10 fingers!” came the reply. Minutes earlier, James Milner had been questioned on exactly where things began to go wrong. “From the first whistle,” was his riposte. Full marks for honesty, if not much else.
And so to Paris, and then to Anfield and Napoli’s visit next month.
Klopp must hope Liverpool have retained some of those big-game tendencies from last season – because they have two of them coming up now.