There were lofty expectations for Group B from the moment a heavyweight draw was made. A high-octane, high quality opener at Anfield exceeded them. Milan initially received a brutal lesson in how elite European football has developed in the seven years since they were last in the Champions League as Jürgen Klopp’s side threatened to overwhelm Stefano Pioli’s team.
Once the visitors adapted, however, they delivered a clinical lesson of their own by capitalising on sloppy Liverpool defending to score twice in three dramatic minutes at the end of the first half.
As in the 2005 final, Liverpool headed for half-time shellshocked, trailing and in need of a rethink. Again they found the answers.
Jordan Henderson sealed a merited and important win with a fine half volley, the captain’s first Champions League goal for 2,485 days, and ultimately the greater European experience in the Liverpool ranks told. Mohamed Salah missed a penalty shortly after Fikayo Tomori’s unfortunate own goal but his influence and menace never waned.
Salah went on to mark his 100th appearance at Anfield with his 72nd goal on home soil and from that moment on, despite Milan’s prevailing threat and growing confidence, the hosts were firmly back in control of an absorbing contest. Anfield was served a treat. The respective managers enjoyed it too. Klopp and Pioli were engaged in a lengthy conversation long after the final whistle, along with the Milan legend Paolo Maldini, and shared a warm embrace before starting their post-match media duties.
Liverpool flew into Milan from Salah’s kick-off, feeding off the Anfield atmosphere that was sorely missed during last season’s forgettable Champions League campaign behind closed doors. Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson caused all manner of problems with trademark runs from full-back and met surprisingly little resistance from the visitors’ compact defence. Salah was another prominent thorn in Milan’s side. One ingredient in Liverpool’s commanding start was less predictable, however. It was the lesser-spotted Divock Origi.
Klopp had to rotate at some point and having helped keep three clean sheets in four matches on his return from injury Virgil van Dijk was rested, along with Sadio Mané. Even so, there were eyebrows raised at the inclusion of Origi, who may have etched his name into Liverpool folklore in the Champions League but had been nowhere near featuring for Klopp’s team in the early weeks of the season. Or in the final months of last season for that matter. The Belgium striker made an encouraging return before exiting in the second half with cramp.
Alexander-Arnold instigated the breakthrough when exchanging passes with Salah and surging into the Milan area. The former Chelsea defender Tomori flew in to intercept Alexander-Arnold’s attempted delivery across the face of goal only to deflect the effort up and over his already committed goalkeeper.
Mohamed Salah scores Liverpool’s second-half equaliser.
Liverpool were presented with a glorious opportunity to double their advantage when Robertson’s volley struck the raised arm of Ismaël Bennacer inside the area. The Polish referee immediately pointed to the spot, booked the impressive Milan midfielder and ignored the angry protests that followed. Salah drove his penalty down the centre of the goal, too close to Mike Maignan who pushed the effort away and also foiled Diogo Jota from the follow-up.
Liverpool were so dominant and dangerous – racking up 13 shots in the opening half hour alone – that the miss felt almost inconsequential. A second would surely come. Yet it assumed an unlikely significance when Milan struck twice in the closing minutes of a half in which they had barely constructed an attack of note. Sharp, incisive passing opened up the right of Liverpool’s defence on both occasions. The equaliser arrived from a flowing move out of defence that ended with Rafael Leão’s first-time ball finding Ante Rebic unmarked inside the Liverpool area. The Milan striker instantly tucked his shot beyond the exposed Alisson.
Within three minutes the visitors were ahead. Leão weaved his way down the Milan left before finding Rebic in a similar position to his goal.
This time Rebic drew Alisson and squared to Theo Hernández, who had joined the attack from left back and saw his anticipated tap-in stopped on the line by Robertson. Brahim Díaz, however, followed up for a simple finish. The look of incredulity across the Liverpool bench was understandable, and shared by everyone else inside the stadium bar the joyous corner from Milan.
Simon Kjær thought he had added a third shortly after the restart when Henderson missed an attempted clearance at the near post and the Denmark captain converted at the back. A correct offside flag curtailed the celebrations.
Liverpool levelled moments later thanks to a delightful exchange between Salah and Origi. The Egypt international, receiving Fabinho’s ball and holding off his marker, found his strike partner and immediately darted into the area. Origi scooped the return over the Milan defence for Salah to convert with an improvised finish. The third was even better and followed a period of sustained home pressure that resulted in a corner for Alexander-Arnold. Bennacer headed clear at the near post but only as far as Henderson who, catching the ball on the half volley, swept a superb shot inside Maignan’s bottom corner from the edge of the area. Milan suffered once again, but they remain a dangerous opponent in Group B