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Was this a kind of closure? Not really. But it felt like a marker along the way.
This Champions League game will be remembered for two things. First, as a way of putting to bed that unsettling, unloved pre‑pandemic game, Liverpool versus Atlético Madrid, March 2020, the last dance before the shutters came down. And second for a brilliant performance from the local boy, Trent Alexander‑Arnold, who oozed around Anfield reeling off moments of clarity and precision, using that beautifully expressive right foot to sketch in the corners, the details, the shape of the game in a decisive first half.
By the final whistle at Anfield Alexander-Arnold had completed 103 passes, made five tackles and interceptions, and dished up the assists for both Liverpool goals in a 2-0 win. It was a performance of full-strength, undiluted Alexander-Arnold, a player just enjoying his own range, running up and down the scales. The result means Liverpool qualify from Group B and won’t have to worry about this competition again until February. Perhaps they will move along in other ways too.
A lot has changed in the months since these two teams last met in this stadium, a fixture that will always have its own resonance as a marker of the change from then to now. In the buildup to this game Jürgen Klopp called that night “really strange”. Many people present felt uneasy just being there, but with no real hard edge yet to hang that feeling on.
The parliamentary report into the handling of Covid-19 would later state that 37 deaths are directly linked to that fixture. What is it about football that generates these notes of sadness, among the weekly joy and trivia?
It was at least a reassuringly familiar return. There is a well-worn schtick about Anfield and these European nights. But just because it’s a cliche doesn’t mean it isn’t also true, and this is a lovely place for a night game; a stadium that leaves you a great big slice of sky, decked out with that roof-mounted dazzle that blurs the edge of your vision and gives the colours a spotlight clarity.
There was a lull at the start. At times like this you notice how little in the way of deeper gears there is in this version of Liverpool’s midfield. What you also notice is how much of the play comes through Alexander-Arnold. In the early exchanges he was the only Liverpool player who seemed to have any kind of relationship with the ball.
The opening goal after 13 minutes was created by his 21st touch. It came from a fatal moment of slackness, as Mario Hermoso gave Liverpool’s right-back just enough space in Trent Country, that channel by the touchline. The cross was a lovely, snaking, vicious thing, bouncing in a horrible space between defenders. Diogo Jota made just the right run and then had time to nod it into an untended spot.
The second goal was another Trent assist from almost the same space as he was once again oddly ignored, with time to spank a cross-shot effort across goal. Sadio Mané diverted it into the net with the simplest of touches.
Again it was a goal that arrived out of no great pressure or thrust, just a moment of space and precision. This is not to play down the craft involved. If your opponent lowers his guard you still have to be able to clip his chin.
And Alexander-Arnold was a joy to watch here. How do you solve a problem like Trent? There is every now and then a period of hand-wringing over this question. Why do anything? Why imagine anything needs to be done? This is not an off-the-peg footballer. He isn’t trying to be an orthodox full-back.
His starting positions are unique, his skill set pitched differently, his brief to hurt the opposition as much as to blunt it.
At the same time he is a weirdly self-made kind of footballer, a fun, gangly, socks-down kind of deadly attacking weapon. He ambles. He mooches.
Watching him charge across to close down some sniping left winger, you half expect to look down and notice he’s got a surfboard under his arm. But he also he carries a presence now, and a sense of his qualities. To pick him in your team is to decide to play a certain way. Alexander‑Arnold is a tactic. Just go with it.
It still seems like a note of grace that Alexander-Arnold can exist and thrive in this sport of constant collisions and constant movement. We can talk about covering and tight defensive shape. But without Trent playing exactly like Trent this team would be hugely diminished – not just as an attacking force, but as a spectacle, as something to pore over, to become engrossed by.
The game turned dark toward half-time. First Felipe was sent off: a straight red flashed for a mean and cynical trip on Mané as he broke in Liverpool’s half. It wasn’t vicious. But there was no effort to play the ball. Atlético’s players were incensed. Diego Simeone could be seen stalking his touchline like a wraith, stamping his dinky patent leather lace-ups, swishing his frightening designer death-quilt coat.
Liverpool held on to 2-0, with some minor spills. Klopp can now turn the focus of his squad to the league, with the comfort that his chief creative force looks in rude health.
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