Inter 0- 2 Liverpool: Firmino and Salah give Liverpool commanding first-leg win over Inter

    Jürgen Klopp had seen enough. With almost an hour played at San Siro, Internazionale cutting his team to ribbons and the home crowd buoyant, the Liverpool manager retreated to his bench in dim spirits.

There were a few seconds of discussion with his coaches. Training tops were peeled off, tactical instructions issued, last-minute warm-ups executed. And then, the flourish: a triple substitution in the 59th minute.

For 75 minutes San Siro bounced with a belief and energy befitting Internazionale’s performance. By the 83rd it was a stadium of silent disbelief, save for the pocket of jubilant Liverpool fans peering down on a classic European away script from up in the gods. They have seen this before, and they know where it can lead.

Jürgen Klopp’s team were on the back foot for much of the second half as Ivan Perisic rampaged down the left and Arturo Vidal dominated central midfield. But Liverpool were superior where it mattered most and took a significant step towards the Champions League quarter-finals courtesy of two late strikes in eight minutes from Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah. Ruthlessness and experience won out.

The Italian champions, competing in the Champions League last 16 for the first time in 10 years, were taught a painful lesson. Simone Inzaghi will have learned from Klopp’s telling substitutions, too. Firmino came off the bench to open the scoring while the triple introduction of Jordan Henderson, Naby Keïta and Luis Díaz turned the game when Inter were at their most threatening. It was a victory that demonstrated the riches at the Liverpool manager’s disposal and maintained their imperious form in Europe this season.

It is now seven wins in seven Champions League games for the six-time winners and nine wins from the past 12 European away games. Salah’s strike, his 24th of the season, extended his club-record run of scoring in consecutive European away games to eight. And to think he looked tired after the recent demands of the Africa Cup of Nations.

There was nothing remarkable about the Liverpool performance until they scored apart from a Champions League debut for Harvey Elliott. The midfielder, who had impressed in two substitute outings since his return from a dislocated ankle, replaced Trent Alexander-Arnold as the youngest player to start in the competition for Liverpool at the age of 18 years and 318 days.

What a stage on which to make his bow. San Siro may be fading in its concrete grandeur, on borrowed time with its replacement planned down the road, and it was at 50% capacity because of Italy’s Covid restrictions. But it remains an iconic, raucous arena, and the noise was rolling down from its towering stands long before kick-off.

Mohamed Salah and Ibrahima Konaté embrace after Salah doubled Liverpool’s lead over Inter.
Mohamed Salah and Ibrahima Konaté embrace after Salah doubled Liverpool’s lead over Inter.

The crowd was treated to an absorbing game, although both teams’ commitment to attack and willingness to flood forward in numbers produced few genuine chances. Alisson did not have a save to make all night, although it was not for the want of trying by Inter.

Liverpool’s best opening of the first half fell to Sadio Mané, who met Andy Robertson’s deep free-kick with a free header that he sent wastefully over Samir Handanovic’s crossbar.

Inter almost punished the visitors immediately with what would have been a stunning goal. A flowing move invited Perisic to take on Alexander‑Arnold down the left. Klopp’s former double-winner at Borussia Dortmund crossed to Hakan Calhanoglu at the near post and the midfielder, having controlled neatly with his first touch, crashed a shot from an acute angle against the face of Alisson’s crossbar.

Klopp reunited the old triple act of Salah, Mané and Firmino for the second half when introducing the Brazilian centre-forward for Diogo Jota. The Portugal international may have been nursing a leg injury but there was also a need to improve Liverpool’s composure and creativity in the final third, and Firmino remains an invaluable asset in that regard. It was the threat from Inter and Perisic in particular that grew early in the second half, however.

The Croatia international found space and also his forwards with alarming regularity from a Liverpool perspective as Inter took control of midfield. Denzel Dumfries carved open the visitors with a diagonal ball that Perisic trapped with a superb first touch. He crossed for Lautaro Martínez arriving at the back post but just too high for the striker to connect. Ibrahima Konaté and Virgil van Dijk both intercepted dangerous Perisic crosses as the pressure intensified. Klopp had seen enough and made a triple substitution on the hour.

There was an immediate jolt to the Liverpool display. Díaz found himself free inside the Inter penalty area following a neat exchange with Alexander-Arnold. Milan Skriniar blocked the Colombia international’s first-time shot and was so impressed with himself he punched the air. His celebrations would not last long.

Vidal had produced a typically tigerish display in midfield but one minor lapse transformed the complexion of the entire tie. Having tracked and tackled Salah deep in his own half, Vidal attempted to sweep the ball away from Liverpool’s leading goalscorer but succeeded only in releasing Alexander-Arnold behind the Inter defence. Marcelo Brozovic covered at the expense of a corner. Robertson took it and Firmino, rising highest at the near post, flicked a glancing header beyond Handanovic and inside the far corner.

It was a precious if somewhat unexpected breakthrough for Liverpool and there was more to come. With seven minutes left Alexander-Arnold sent a free-kick deep into the Inter area. Van Dijk won the initial header that eventually found its way to Salah standing unmarked on the penalty spot. His shot trickled past Handanovic with the aid of a deflection, and Liverpool found themselves with one foot in the quarter-finals.

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