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Liverpool and the ‘Group of Death’: It wasn’t meant to be this easy

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After overcoming AC Milan, Porto and twice Atletico Madrid, Steven Scragg looks at Liverpool’s accomplishment in reaching the last 16 and accepts: it wasn’t meant to be this easy.

Four Champions League games, four wins, and not only have Jurgen Klopp’s team qualified for the knockout stages of the tournament with two games to spare, but they have also done so as group winners.

Liverpool laugh in the face of stereotypical Groups of Death.

Atletico Madrid were tamed at Anfield on Wednesday evening. Utterly tamed. Klopp and his players thought of a place for Diego Simeone’s side, and they then put them there.

This was a win that was garnered within an aura of stylish defiance. Liverpool oozed a certain sense of authority throughout and seemed intent from early on that they would make an example of Atletico.

On a night where many players in red shined brightly, there was no bigger exponent of this than Trent Alexander-Arnold, who was absolutely imperious.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Wednesday, September 15, 2021: Liverpool's Trent Alexander-Arnold during the UEFA Champions League Group B Matchday 1 game between Liverpool FC and AC Milan at Anfield. (Pic by Paul Currie/Propaganda)

Creator of both Liverpool goals, winner of tackles, facilitator of swift ball movement, link between one end of the pitch and the other.

When football traditionally speaks of genius in terms of players who can link midfield and attack, Alexander-Arnold instead links defence to attack, via predominantly occupying the centre-ground of the right-hand side of the pitch.

For a player that many people decry could ever be deployed as a midfielder, the amusing punchline is that, effectively, he already is one.

Alexander-Arnold is the right-back you can’t label, so much so that lesser – international – footballing brains do not have the vision and intelligence to be able to field him in their more prosaic teams.

Liverpool’s passing against Atletico was sublime, at times spelling out letters on the pitch with the patterns, from a W to an M to a V, you blink and you’ve missed it, but there it was, and that is what leaves opposing players stood, stock still, staring into an empty space where Liverpool player and ball had been a split-second earlier.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Wednesday, November 3, 2021: Liverpool's Sadio Mané celebrates after scoring the second goal during the UEFA Champions League Group B Matchday 4 game between Liverpool FC and Club Atlético de Madrid at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

I can only surmise that it is a similar experience to when you walk into a shop for the ingredients to a meal you have decided upon, only to see a blank shelf where the products you require should be.

You stand there, for a little bit longer than you should, half in the hope that it will magically appear before your eyes.

Klopp’s Liverpool used to be all about what shapes the players formed around the ball, but now it has evolved to an even higher plateau. At times, it is the greatest thing I have ever seen.

Alexander-Arnold wasn’t alone in his brilliance, every player made a contribution and Liverpool would have been good value had they doubled, or even tripled, the two goals they did score.

Luis Suarez was obviously an omnipresent figure once more, prior to the game. Explanations were offered as to why he tried to escape the employment of Liverpool on an annual basis before he finally did manage to break free in 2014.

Seven years ago, we weren’t the Liverpool we are today, despite the near-miss we had on the Premier League title under Brendan Rodgers.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Wednesday, November 3, 2021: Club Atlético de Madrid's Luis Suarez during the UEFA Champions League Group B Matchday 4 game between Liverpool FC and Club Atlético de Madrid at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Mirroring this, Suarez is no longer the player he was seven years ago.

Rancour still surrounds Suarez, and he was booed pretty much every time he touched the ball, jeered and mocked when his goal was disallowed.

Hero to pantomime villain, Anfield doesn’t cope well with players that push our adoration aside for pastures new. It isn’t a new concept.

Rightly or wrongly, from Kevin Keegan to Philippe Coutinho, if they choose to go, they hand in their hero status on the way through the exit door. The generations might change, yet Liverpool supporters do not deal well with rejection.

Suarez’s evening ended shortly before the hour mark, and I’m sure if he was offered a guarantee that he would never have to return to Anfield in opposing colours ever again, he would happily accept it.

Luckily, Liverpool do not need to look backwards for its inspiration.

2H4MWCB Liverpool, UK. 03rd Nov, 2021. Diogo Jota of Liverpool (r) celebrates after scoring with his teammates but his effort was disallowed by VAR. UEFA Champions league, group B match, Liverpool v Atletico Madrid at Anfield Stadium in Liverpool on Wednesday 3rd November 2021. this image may only be used for Editorial purposes. Editorial use only, license required for commercial use. No use in betting, games or a single club/league/player publications. pic by Chris Stading/Andrew Orchard sports photography/Alamy Live news Credit: Andrew Orchard sports photography/Alamy Live News

Winning Group B so emphatically is quite the marker to be laying down. We shouldn’t take this accomplishment lightly; it takes a special team to make a group littered with nothing apart from potential booby traps appear to be so completely effortless to the naked eye.

Bayern Munich are quite rightly lauded for their mastery of Group E, but here Liverpool are, doing something that is eminently comparable.

Now, Klopp is handed the conundrum of how to deal with two Champions League games that will have no bearing whatsoever on the outcome of the group.

It will all be about balancing the desire for continued positive momentum, playing to win, while fielding lineups that will benefit the bigger picture.

We will face Porto at Anfield a few weeks from now, in between the Premier League visits of Arsenal and Southampton, and then in December we will travel to the San Siro, to take on an AC Milan side whose own Champions League fate might well be decided by then too.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Wednesday, November 3, 2021: Liverpool's manager Jürgen Klopp during the UEFA Champions League Group B Matchday 4 game between Liverpool FC and Club Atlético de Madrid at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

This will be a game that comes three days beyond a sojourn to Molineux, and four days before Aston Villa roll into town.

For now, West Ham and David Moyes appear on the radar. A team in excellent form, but one which we can dent if we keep spelling out the letters of the alphabet with the ball at our feet.

The only concern was another hamstring injury, a third in a short span of time – this time Bobby Firmino. Opposing teams can’t seem to stop us, but injuries can if we let them.

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