Liverpool took a sizeable step toward the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals as goals from Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane earned them a 2-0 'away' win over RB Leipzig in Budapest.
Three defeats in a row had Jurgen Klopp's side fearing the worst in Hungary against an RB Leipzig side that had already sent Manchester United crashing out in the group stage but this was far more like the Liverpool that had romped to the 2019 Champions League and 2020 Premier League, remorseless in their pressing and incisive in front of goal.
Leipzig, away from their home stadium due to COVID-19 regulations, looked altogether less at ease with a three man defense anchored by Bayern Munich-bound Dayot Upamecano unable to do much as they found themselves one-on-one with Liverpool's devastating front three. Roberto Firmino was denied an opener in the first half when Mane's cross came moments after the ball rolled out in touch but it was clear throughout that the goals were coming for Liverpool, a five minute double dose of Leipzig errors allowing the Reds to take a sizeable advantage into next month's second leg.
Recap the talking points from the game below:
Classic Liverpool rattle Leipzig
You would not have known that Liverpool's confidence had hit the floor in recent weeks on the evidence of the first half in Budapest. It was not just that they created more chances than RB Leipzig, dominated possession and controlled territory but that they did it all with composure and at times a swagger that was more typical of this team before they began losing center-backs at a rate of knots.
Their defensive line was so high as to suffocate Leipzig, who without Yussuf Poulsen had no outball for their defense to aim at. Upamecano was particularly skittish in the press, a more cruel assessment might be that the Bayern Munich-bound center-back already had his mind on other matters. Liverpool were nowhere but the hear and now, crackling with intensity. Jurgen Klopp's side identified the space behind their opposing wingbacks and forced their opponents to defend Salah, Firmino and Mane one-on-one. Fair to say it did not succeed.
Few players relished Leipzig's approach more than Trent Alexander-Arnold, who had the time to ping passes in behind to runners in space. It was all too easy and Liverpool were only denied their first half goals by excellent goalkeeping from Peter Gulacsi, who blocked Salah's chip with his elbow, and the ball rolling a few millimeters across the line before Mane could square for Firmino to tuck home.
This was far more like the Liverpool of old, its shining moment a classic pocket pick by one of the front three eight minutes into the second half. Marcel Sabitzer felt the pressure and kicked the ball in the vague direction of a team-mate. Salah smelt blood and pounced, three touches later he was rifling the ball into the bottom corner.
Pressure begot more pressure on the Leipzig defense, Nordi Mukiele finding himself trying to bring down a high-looping ball with Mane right on his heels. This was the Liverpool that forced mistakes of their opponents and on this occasion they did not need to push all that hard.
Nagelsmann misses his target man
As Liverpool pressed with renewed vigor it was apparent that Leipzig had not been expecting this ferocity from their visitors, certainly in terms of his selection Julian Nagelsmann had designed his team to keep the ball and work it slowly around the pitch.
Dani Olmo as the central attacker showed a propensity to drop deep and try to add to the build-up. The issue was that when he did he rarely had the time to pick a pass, his night typified in the first half when he came all the way back into his own third only to punt the ball out.
Only once did Olmo's movement draw space in behind into which Christopher Nkunku could drive, an occasion where the Frenchman forced a good save from Alisson. Yet the price Leipzig paid for such a technical attack was that when pressure came the way of their back three – which it did at a continual rate – there was no-one to aim the ball up to.
It was hard not to wonder whether the presence of Yussuf Poulsen from the off might have changed things for Leipzig, who were too easy to hem into their own half. The likes of Lukas Klostermann and Nordi Mukiele were completing less than half of their long passes and were having to play far more than they would like as Liverpool harassed them high up the pitch. Without anyone of any real size to aim towards all they managed to do was earn themselves a few seconds of breathing room.
Poulsen's eventual introduction gave Leipzig that reference point they had been lacking for so long but by the time the Dane entered the fray Liverpool were already out of sight.