Trent Alexander-Arnold: the boy denying Klopp and Liverpool their honourable elimination
A proud Jurgen Klopp, who also spoke of his dread for an ignominious exit after the 3-0 first leg defeat at Camp Nou. Said of his team: “I think it was the best away game in the Champions League – not only this year, last year included.” At that point the German coach had seemingly thrown in the towel. But because it’s football, he must try – and try with Trent Alexander-Arnold at his disposal.
Two most conspicuous changes the former Borussia Dortmund coach made when they were smacked at Camp Nou was the preference of Georginio Wijnaldum to stand in for Roberto Firmino as No. 9, and the choice of a more conservative right-back in Joe Gomez over Trent Alexander-Arnold. While Klopp took a great risk going all attack against a Messi-led Barcelona side, these two tactical changes was an indication of how mindful and conscious he was of his hosts up front.
The fitness of Firmino would have made the choice of Wijnaldum a little bit understandable. But the choice of Gomez at right-back looked ridiculous from onset, as who gives a player his first start in five months in such a big game and over one of the best right backs in Europe at the moment?
The plan for Klopp, was Gomez being a centre-back who can as well perform well at right-back – his versatility would be vital to the back four to narrow and crowd Lionel Messi, with James Milner dropping to the right-back whenever Barcelona attacked. Suarez had scored earlier in the game and Klopp’s tinge of conservativeness worked for nearly 75 minutes – until Lionel Messi’s two late goals – including a stunning free-kick to give his side a clear advantage going to Anfield.
Everyone has a plan, until they get hit in the face, Mike Tyson once said. The end justifies Klopp’s approach. Only for a short time are we going to remember how well his side played – in the long run, what we all think of his how his side were torn apart at Camp Nou, and could have stood a better chance with Alexander-Arnold in the line-up – especially in the point when Barcelona crowded the midfield by bringing in Semedo for Philippe Coutinho and Sergi Roberto dropping to the midfield.
Unperturbed by getting dropped on one of his biggest nights as a lad, the 20-year-old Alexander-Arnold, on Saturday night created two assists as his side edged out Newcastle by 3-2 – and in the game both the Englishman and Robertson recorded their eleventh assists of the season.
Talisman Mohammed Salah picked up an injury that ruled him out of the reverse fixture, with Firmino also ruled out, while on Monday night Vincent Kompany, with a late goal against Leicester City, broke the hearts of Merseyside Red and their faithful. On the back of all these, and the thought that lurked on the subconscious of the Liverpool players that they might probably end one of their most impressive campaigns in recent years without a trophy – thinking of them doing a remarkable comeback last night was unimaginable.
All the players needed, as preached by Klopp was to believe – and alongside his faith, there was action – Alexander Arnold launched in full force. The youngster made Jordi Alba, one of the best left-backs in Europe in recent years, look mediocre. Supplying of crosses into the Blaugrana box was an area in which the Spanish giants were found wanting, just as in the first leg. But while Liverpool couldn’t exploit that weakness last week, the chink in their armour was better explored by Alexander-Arnold and this was what Liverpool needed mostly on the night.
Divock Origi gave the Reds a glimmer of hope with a tap in the seventh minute. Wijnaldum saw his low drive sneak past Ter Stegen in the 54th minute, and later took off the roof off Anfield as his header from Shaqiri’s cross found the net less than three minutes after his first goal. The unbelievable comeback was completed in bizarre and jaw-dropping fashion as the man-of-the-night Alexander-Arnold made a cheeky corner that caught Barcelona off guard, allowing an unmarked Origi to turn home his second – and Liverpool’s fourth – in the 79th minute.
And if Klopp eventually wins his first final in seven at the Wanda Metropolitano in June, as he awaits either Spurs or Ajax in the final, he would have much to be grateful to be grateful for, none more than Alexander-Arnold.