Liverpool moved into the Champions League quarter-finals with a 3-1 win over Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena. Sadio Mane led the way in attack but the victory owed a lot to the big man at the back…
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Van Dijk inspires Reds
Is there anything Virgil Van Dijk cannot do? The Dutchman has been outstanding all season, transforming a leaky defence into one of the strongest in Europe, and he showed his full array of talents against Bayern.
His headline moment came midway through the second half, when he rose above a crowd of red-shirted defenders to head home James Milner’s corner. But there was also a vital assist, his raking, long-range pass setting up the chance from which Sadio Mane scored his stunning opener.
Bayern fought back in between those two moments, with Joel Matip’s own goal temporarily switching the momentum in the hosts’ favour, but Liverpool were not to be denied. Mane’s second goal of the night, a diving header from Mohamed Salah’s cross six minutes from time, completed an emphatic victory after the goalless draw in last week’s first leg.
Van Dijk excelled defensively as well as offensively. Liverpool’s away performances in the Champions League have been uncharacteristically sloppy this season, but against a Bayern side who had scored 11 goals in their previous two games, Van Dijk inspired a much-improved display.
He set the tone early on, getting back to make a vital intervention as Robert Lewandowski latched onto a ball over the top, and he continued in the same vein throughout. Lewandowski had scored four goals in his last two games, but by the end of the night Van Dijk had limited him to only a single shot on goal.
Van Dijk made more clearances than anyone else on the pitch, winning all of his aerial duels, and he was also a calming influence in possession. His 85 per cent passing accuracy rate was the highest of Liverpool’s starters. Those factors, coupled with his goal and assist, made this another hugely influential display from him.
Mane’s scoring run continues
There was no goal for Mohamed Salah, whose scoreless streak stretched to six games, but what does that matter when Mane is in this kind of form?
The Senegal international’s opening goal was incredible from start to finish. There was the impeccable first touch from Van Dijk’s pass, the Cruyff turn to elude Manuel Neuer, and then the finish, delicately lifted over Rafinha and Niklas Sule to find the bottom corner. “I need to watch it again and again and again,” said a beaming Jurgen Klopp afterwards.
Mane’s opener showed sublime skill and composure, but his second was all about movement and striking instincts. He spotted the space between Mats Hummels and Rafinha and timed his run perfectly, meeting Salah’s outside-of-the-boot cross with an unstoppable diving header.
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That goal made Mane Liverpool’s highest away scorer in Champions League and European Cup history, with seven, and it also continued his rich vein of form. He has now scored nine times in his last 10 appearances in all competitions. Many of those goals have been decisive, but none has been more spectacular than his opener in Bavaria.
Premier League implications
Inevitably, there will be questions over whether Liverpool’s continued Champions League involvement will harm their Premier League title prospects. Gary Neville suggested they would be better off out of Europe earlier this week and history suggests there is a case for it. None of the last six Premier League title-winners have progressed past the quarter-finals.
The fixture congestion that comes with Champions League commitments is a strain on any squad, but Liverpool have handled it well so far. In their seven Premier League games directly after European fixtures this season, they have recorded five wins and two draws – the draws coming against Manchester United and Manchester City.
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The extra work may yet catch up with them, but there is little evidence to suggest they are suffering from fatigue just yet. Liverpool could be seen swarming all over Bayern players in the second half at the Allianz Arena and the Premier League tracking data shows they are still playing with their trademark intensity domestically, too.
In fact, the statistics suggest Liverpool have been playing with even greater energy than usual in recent weeks. In their last five Premier League games, they have averaged 135 sprints per game compared to 121 per game in the previous 25.
They are covering the ground with their usual appetite too. In the 4-2 win over Burnley at the weekend, they recorded their third-highest total for distance covered in any Premier League game all season. Over the course of the season, the numbers are consistent.
It remains to be seen for how long Liverpool will be able to keep it up, but the numbers are certainly encouraging. For now, supporters can simply sit back and savour another memorable European night.