If Liverpool have a problem with set-pieces, nobody appears to have told Trent Alexander-Arnold.
Players with more seniority at Anfield stood over the decisive first-half free-kick with him, but it was the 18-year-old academy product who swept the dead ball into Hoffenheim’s goal, silenced the Rhein-Necker-Arena’s rowdy Südkurve and handed his boyhood club an early advantage in this Champions League play-off.
The youngster’s sublime strike and deflected second away goal from substitute James Milner mean Jürgen Klopp’s side will start next week’s second leg confident of progression, but an assured performance was spoiled by a late Mark Uth goal that means Hoffenheim could yet cause an upset.
The Bundesliga outfit will be aggrieved that they did not end the night level, having seen Simon Mingolet deny Andrej Kramaric from the penalty spot early on with a save that could yet prove just as important as the two away goals.
This was never going to be easy for Liverpool. The quiet, hilly Kraichgau region of south-western Germany does not appear to be the most intimidating of trips on first glance, but everything about its flagship football club suggested they would cause Liverpool problems.
Hoffenheim were unbeaten here last season on their way to a fourth-place finish in the Bundesliga, only champions Bayern Munich had a better defensive record and, ominously, no team in Germany’s top-flight scored more from set-pieces.
The club’s rise from relegation candidates two seasons ago to the brink of Champions League football can be attributed to their 30-year-old Julian Nagelsmann, not a player but the head coach regularly compared with Klopp and younger than two members of Liverpool’s travelling squad. If there was to be an upset, he would need every last ounce of his prodigious talent to pull it off.
It was an open game from the first whistle, with both sides boasting players strong on the counter. There was an early moment of danger for the hosts when Mignolet failed to win possession after rushing out to the touchline. Hoffenheim, however, could not capitalise and Mignolet would more than atone for his error just minutes later.
Dejan Lovren’s foul that brought the penalty was a clumsy one but still referee Bjorn Kuipers took a moment to gather his thoughts before correctly awarding it. The effort from Kramaric, once of Leicester City, was poor and Mignolet dived low to his left to beat it away conclusively with two hands.
The formidable noise around the Rhein-Neckar-Arena quietened suddenly, barring one small corner of red. Those travelling supporters almost had more to shout about shortly after when Mohamed Salah caught the hosts’ skipper Kevin Vogt out and broke through a high Hoffenheim line to go through on goal.
Vogt, like Mignolet, atoned and caught up with the Egyptian, forcing him to alter his run just enough so that the resulting effort glanced wide.
Despite that opening, Liverpool struggled to find more and Hoffenheim grew comfortable, enjoying the lion’s share of possession and with it, momentum. One clean swipe from the boot of a teenager from West Derby would change all that. Three more senior set-piece taker stood over the ball with Alexander-Arnold, but his inch-perfect effort glided past Oliver Baumann and into the corner of the net.
Liverpool looked for another, but just before the break came a reminder that for the most part, it had been Hoffenheim’s half. Joel Matip was beaten to a high ball, allowing former Arsenal prospect Serge Gnabry to test Mignolet. The Belgian parried and Sandro Wagner could only fire the rebound wide.
Liverpool should have been two-up shortly after re-emerging for the second half. Mane lost his marker out on the left flank, darted inside and cut towards the byline before sliding a low cross back to the feet of Firmino. The Brazilian, who scored 49 in 153 appearances for Hoffenheim before moving to Anfield two years ago, fired straight at Baumann and the rebound cannoned off a defender then flew wide.
Having survived that scare, Hoffenheim regained their rhythm. Gnabry saw a goal rightly ruled out for offside and Alberto Moreno should have been punished by Kramaric after a lapse in concentration. It was not the Spaniard’s first of the night. Hoffenheim then tested Klopp's side with a succession of corners, each of them defended well but not decisively.
In an evenly-matched tie though, Liverpool still searched for more and the second eventually came through Milner, though with a big helping hand from Harvard Nordtveit. The Hoffenheim defender, signed this summer after an unremarkable season at West Ham United, deflected Milner’s cross over the head of Baumann.
Hoffenheim’s early energy had now been zapped, but it was restored by Uth’s late and easily preventable strike. A mix-up between Alexander-Arnold and Matip allowed the Hoffenheim substitute to drift in behind, collect the ball unchallenged and convert past Mignolet.
It dampened Liverpool’s evening and reminded them of the threat Hoffenheim will bring to Merseyside, but Klopp could still look at the scoreboard and smile. His side had come through a significant test in the ascendancy.
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