“Proper Champions League”. You said it, Jürgen. At times in the second half at Anfield, as the red and cream shapes spun and surged, exchanging darts and overloads, as the crowd generated that rolling surge of heat and noise under the low white lights, this felt like a kind of tribute night, a nostalgia spectacular, Those Famous European Nights redux.
Part of the PR puff behind the European Super League – a wheeze the owners of these teams were so keen to embrace – was the sense these autumn games are a trudge, a schlep, cold product. Well, nobody seems to have told the players. Instead this was a wild, ragged, strangely dreamy night of early group stage Champions League football, as Liverpool went from 1-0 up to 2-1 down to 3-2 up in the space of 22 minutes either side of half-time.
By the end they were good value for a win that will also give Jürgen Klopp cause for concern. It is one of the beauties of elite level sport that a great strength can – with the right kind of counterpunch – be transformed into a weakness. So it came to pass here as a Liverpool team that came frothing out of the traps, romping fearlessly down both flanks, were also skewered in exactly the same spot as Milan attacked with precision late in the first half.
This will always be the flip-side of Liverpool’s football of the flanks when they attack with the throttle pressed. The sheet is always just a little too small to cover every extremity. Every overlap, every blitz attack will leave untended space. And as ever that process revolved around Trent Alexander-Arnold, who was devastating in that opening period but also reduced to looking a little blankly at his midfield cover as Milan scored their goals.
Even the pre-match rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone had a kind of melancholy, a sense of reunions and also farewells
This was, of course, also a kind of homecoming. The last time Anfield hosted a full-house European Game was Atlético Madrid, March 2020, one of many patient zero moments for the contagion that was coming. Anfield was an eerie, unsettling place that night, although in a way that now just seems like a constant underlying mood.
Here the stands were full before kick-off, with that familiar white light, white noise fizzing around the open tiers. And yes, there is a chintzy kind of mythology to all this, these big fat wet notes, that old Anfield rag. But there was something quietly soothing here too, a sense of a crowd remembering itself. Even the pre-match rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone had a kind of melancholy, a sense of reunions and also farewells. It has been a long 18 months.
At which point: ignition. Divok Origi started in the centre of the attacking tripod, and pressed eagerly from the outset, robbing and harrying Milan’s defence.
Milan are a robust, powerful, youthful team. They looked overwhelmed here at times, drowning in overlaps, overloads, block tackles. With nine minutes gone that wave broke, made by a sublime exchange between Mo Salah and Alexander-Arnold on the right flank. Salah’s pass inside was a beauty, leaving Rafael Leão scuttling back trying not to tread on Alexander-Arnold’s ankles as he cut inside, then clipped a shot that deflected up off Fikayo Tomori to billow the net beyond Mike Maignan’s raised arm.
Milan seemed to be sinking for a while, apparently stunned by the sight of those trademark, muscle-memory overlaps, the kind of overlap Liverpool’s players reel off without thinking , like a cat chasing mice in its sleep.
It was from the other side that Andy Robertson forced a penalty kick, spanking a shot on to a Milan hand. Salah’s kick was straight down the middle. It deserved to be saved.
The home fans watch in disbelief as Mike Maignan saves Mohamed Salah’s penalty. Photograph: Javier García/Shutterstock
Much had been made in the buildup of the history of these two grand old footballing aristocrats but in its modern guise this was more a kind of US hedge fund derby. For Milan the model so far has been Liverpool lite: money-ball signings, zingy social media good on TikTok. Which is all very well. But that old Milan also turned defending into an austere and unforgiving art. Or at least something worth having a go at.
Stefano Pioli on his touchline paced awkwardly in dark suit and gleaming tennis shoes. Liverpool had 13 shots in that opening half-hour.
Alexander-Arnold made 15 passes, nine of them – yes, nine – crosses into the box. On the other side Robertson produced six of his own. That makes 15 crosses in 30 minutes of football, a cross every 90 seconds the ball was active. One can dwell on weaknesses. But this is also to miss the beauty, the power and the sheer brilliance of this kind of attacking pressure.
The Fiver: sign up and get our daily football email.
But Pioli did have a plan and Milan executed it with surgical precision at the end of that half. It was from that same flank, Alexander-Arnold Country, that they scored twice, beautifully worked goals that saw Ante Rebic and Brahim Díaz apply the finish.
Three minutes into the second half it was 2-2, Salah scoring after a sniping run on to Origi’s well worked pass. Jordan Henderson, who played with real fire, volleyed the winner into the corner, a spectacular shinner at just the right moment. Liverpool’s strengths remain, as do their attendant frailties when the throttle is cranked right up. But this was above all a thrilling night of football, with the sense of something settling, a stadium and a crowd that really did just need to do this all again.