MOSCOW — Three thoughts on Liverpool’s 1-1 draw at Spartak Moscow in Champions League Group E.
1. Liverpool held on frustrating night
A 1-1 draw in Moscow cannot go down as a bad result for Liverpool, but the wins need to start coming soon and they will wonder how they did not produce one here. Philippe Coutinho swiftly cancelled Fernando’s first-half strike in a game of two fine goals, but the disappointment will be that they did not push on against opponents who looked there for the taking. In the end, a glaring late miss from the substitute Daniel Sturridge was the crowning frustration on a night of spurned chances that may yet prove costly in the long run.
Fernando’s marvellous opener came against the run of play, with the evening already looking like an exercise in patience for Liverpool. Spartak, seemingly low in confidence and missing a number of key players through injury, began with a deep defensive block and sought to deny the likes of Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah room to run in behind. The ploy worked up to a point although Salah twice found pockets of space in the opening 17 minutes before Artem Rebrov saved Spartak with a wonderful one-handed save from Roberto Firmino’s free header.
Liverpool’s pressure appeared to be cranking up a few gears, but midway through the half, from Spartak’s first attack of note, their task was made harder. Fernando had plenty of work to do after Coutinho had conceded a free-kick 25 yards out but his whipped, dipping set-piece was stunning and flew past Loris Karius.
The goal emboldened Spartak, but Liverpool hit back within eight minutes. It was a slick equaliser from Coutinho, exchanging passes with Mane and bursting through on the left side of the area before a cool finish; the timing seemed crucial. Liverpool should have been in front before the break but wasted a five-on-two counter from Spartak’s first corner.
At least Jurgen Klopp’s side were finding openings. Rebrov got down low to parry a Coutinho free-kick early in the second half before, almost immediately, Karius had to parry away an Andrei Eschenko drive. Spartak had come out in slightly more assertive fashion but they were dealt a blow when Rebrov, hurt when diving at Salah’s feet, had to be replaced by Aleksandr Selikhov. Salah appeared to have been tripped during the move but no penalty was awarded; moments later, the new goalkeeper’s first contribution was to acrobatically punch away a loose ball with Salah looking to burst clear again.
Selikhov bravely denied Sturridge with four minutes left and then, with the clock ticking down, the striker volleyed over from close range with arguably Liverpool’s best chance of the night. Towards the end of eight minutes’ added time, Selikhov excelled further, brilliantly repelling a Salah header from six yards out. In the end, time will tell whether this was a useful away draw gained for Liverpool or two valuable points dropped.
2. “Fab Four” give hint of thrills to come
Liverpool had waited almost two months to see their modern-day “Fab Four” in action. This was the first time Coutinho, Mane, Salah and Firmino started a competitive game together and while they will put on more free-flowing performances than this, there was enough here to show Klopp that he need not fear jeopardising Liverpool’s balance by fielding the quartet at once.
The move that created Coutinho’s goal was an obvious rebuttal to such concerns but so too was the sight of the Brazil playmaker tracking back in the opening five minutes to snuff out a threatening Spartak move. All in all it was another committed performance by Coutinho, who is bang on form after a turbulent period affected by injury and transfer speculation; he dropped in effectively when needed to assist the rugged midfield pair of Emre Can and Jordan Henderson.
Salah, so dangerous when drifting centrally, was the primary source of danger and at times Liverpool’s movement and positional rotation tore their opponents apart. Too often, though, a sloppy final ball or mistimed run ruined a promising position: Henderson’s delivery for an offside Mane from that rapid break just before the interval was the clearest of several examples.
If there is one concern about Liverpool’s attack it is that for all the speed and invention, cold blood and clear heads sometimes appear to be lacking.
The same has often been said of their defence too although they were rarely tested at the back. Questions may be asked of the role Karius played in Fernando’s goal; it was a superb strike but aimed fairly centrally on goal and the suspicion was that he reacted to the flight of the ball too slowly. Karius had little else to do; the chances were almost all at the other end, which at least justified the ambition shown by Klopp in going with his vaunted attacking blend.
3. Spartak hold on but may pay for lack of ambition
Spartak had been under pressure in the build-up to Tuesday’s tie, with their poor start to the domestic season having quickly taken the shine off a first Russian Premier League title in 16 years. The pre-match tifo imploring them to “Win or Die” unfurled down the height of an entire stand parallel to the halfway line, hardly offered the most relaxing of backdrops, and there was a nervousness in possession around Massimo Carrera’s side early on.
Their priority appeared to involve avoiding mistakes and countering at speed when possible; Fernando’s goal fitted the plan to perfection but they may look back and regret another attack, minutes later, when they outnumbered Liverpool only for Ivelin Popov to over-hit his pass for Mario Pasalic.
A 2-0 lead could have been decisive; there may also be some disappointment that they did not test Liverpool’s defence more regularly. You sensed there were chances to be had for a sharper attacking outfit but Spartak only showed genuine ambition in spurts, sticking to what was effectively a 5-4-1 formation and appearing content with a point. They will probably need to produce more than this at home if they are to have a chance of finishing in the top two; the full-time whistle, which arrived amid non-stop Liverpool pressure, was greeted by a roar from the crowd, but performances like this will not take them through.
There may be further repercussions from the evening, too. Spartak’s fans had been censured by UEFA after throwing a flare onto the pitch at Maribor on matchday one; in the first half here they set off two smoke bombs and produced a “UEFA Mafia” banner.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.