After nearly a decade spent in European exile, Liverpool are through to the quarter-finals of the UEFA Champions League for a second straight time.
Fans of the Merseysiders have had their attention more on the domestic campaign this season, with Liverpool making their most credible march towards ending an English league drought of three decades. But the Reds – Champions League finalists last season, lest we forget – made their way into the last-eight at the expense of fellow five-time winners Bayern Munich.
It came in resounding fashion too; a 3-1 win at the home of the Bavarians, on Wednesday, 13 March.
The result provides great joy to those invested in English football too, with four Premier League teams reaching the quarters for the first time since 2009.
Here are the key takeaways from Liverpool’s Champions League round of 16 win over Bayern Munich:
Virgil van Dijk is Ludicrous
“Hate him. Too big, too strong, too quick, too good on the ball; Always fighting. Good head of hair. One of them guys who sprays on his top, so he smells lovely.”
These are the words of football’s most honest player – Troy Deeney.
When that man locks down your centre-forward and grabs a goal and an assist, then it’s just plain unfair. Truly, that is the only way to describe Virgil Van Djik – just plain unfair.
The Dutchman was constantly on the move, tracking back players on the wing (as despite his size, he was often the only one who could keep up with the pace of the wingers), marking opposite no. 9 Robert Lewandowski, as well as pinging vertical balls across the length of the pitch.
His assist for Sadio Mane’s goal was pin-point, and his aerial ability helped him win three duels mid-air and score one goal.
He also came to Liverpool’s rescue repeatedly, making five clearances in the match, all inside the box.
One’s thing’s for sure – after this performance, and the one against Germany in the Nations League qualifiers, Virgil will not be a popular baby name for too many German parents.
Manuel Neuer is Past It
In 2010, as a new goalkeeper had burst onto the scene for Germany’s national team, many young boys had looked up to the sweeper-keepers amazing saves and seemingly crazy clearances. Amongst many of those boys, was me.
So it brings me no pleasure to say that Manuel Neuer is well and truly past it.
The seemingly bizarre decisions he used to take that would swing in his favour almost never do so now; in fact, they invariably end up being just that – bizarre. His reflexes are no longer what they used to be, and he ever-so-often seems to find himself in positions no one without a death wish would want to be in.
Whether it was his incongruous decision to charge at Mane, leading to the first goal, or his choice to clear the ball using his feet rather than simply collecting it in his arms after Salah’s run went astray, the evidence suggesting the deterioration of Neuer’s decision-making as well as his overall game is just too hard to ignore.
I miss the Neuer who lived on highlight reels; the one who would head the ball away from danger 30 yards out from his own goal, or the one who would go past opposing strikers fearlessly as though there wasn’t a very high chance of them poking the ball into his net.
I would love nothing more than if the German proves me wrong, but I’m afraid we have seen the best of the shot-stopper, and that he is on a rather steep decline.
Sadio Mane is Worth €100 Million+
Watching Sadio Mane play is like watching a fielder in cricket. He does not draw too much attention, yet his play is fluid. And like fielders, Sadio Mane is always at work; impressing you, every now and then.
Once you start paying attention, however, you realize that the reason Mane is so impressive is that he toils constantly to create and score, not playing in a flashy manner, but rather conserving his flashy side for moments of brilliance.
These include the first touch off of Virgil Van Djik’s pass for his first goal, or his diving header at the far post for his second.
Without him, this Liverpool side would not, in their dreams, be able to achieve the level of consistency that they currently do. He always pops up at the right moments, spins past unsuspecting players and makes passes that cross the ordinary fan’s peripheral vision.
He proved his worth with a stunning display against Bayern, lying in a mostly deep position, creating counter-attacks and creating a network on the left wing with James Milner and Andy Robertson, as the three of them combined made 48 passes in the final third.
The Sengalese also completed five dribbles, along with making the joint-most attempts on goal.
While Salah has been the centre of attention for most football fans, Mane is finally getting the plaudits he deserves – it’s time people realise that the other African in Liverpool’s front line isn’t too bad either.
Bayern Need a Rebuild
A term usually used in American sports, a ‘rebuild’ is when a team that is going down its natural slope slowly replaces its existing roster with new players for the future.
While Bayern fans won’t be too happy with this phase, as European success is unlikely, it is a necessary one.
Old dogs like Franck Ribery do tend to put in a good shift every other week or so (as he did against Liverpool), but it is foolish to rely on a 35-year-old winger and it’s time to move on.
The pure fact that seven of the starting eleven from Bayern’s last UCL final winning team from 2013 are still in the Bavarians’ squad should tell you enough.
Fortunately, though, Bayern have prepared for the future somewhat.
They still have young stars like James Rodriguez – who’s future at the club is probably secure after Zinedine Zidane’s return to Real Madrid – and Leon Goretzka, as well as talented youngsters like Kinsgley Coman, Renato Sanches and Alphonso Davies who have the capability to develop into stars.
Around these young assets, they have the capability of building a truly elite team.
While the farewell to Robben and Ribery will signal the end of an era, it paves way for a new one – one that has been coming for a long time.
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