Neil Humphreys: How Reds can survive Champions League
Here's what Liverpool have to do to survive the Champions League group stage
Liverpool progressed to the group stages of the Champions League yesterday morning (Singapore time), but it was another schizophrenic performance.
The Reds beat Hoffenheim 4-2 in the second leg of the play-off at Anfield for a 6-3 aggregate win in a display that highlighted their key strengths and weaknesses.
Here is how the Anfield club can prosper in the group stages.
1. FOCUS ON THE OTHER BRAZILIAN
If any positives can be gleaned from Philippe Coutinho's interminable flirting with Barcelona, it's the long shadow thrown over his fellow Brazilian.
Roberto Firmino has operated away from the spotlight and flourished.
His intelligent performance was an unusual one for a No. 9.
Firmino plays like a No. 10. He's a creative fulcrum masquerading as a conventional marksman.
His incisive pass through the inside-left for Sadio Mane was sublime and led to Emre Can's opener in the 10th minute.
His dribble and cut-back for Liverpool's second in the 18th minute shared similarities with Coutinho's best work and Firmino's clipped cross to the back post three minutes later for Can's second and Liverpool's third was an impudent delight. He even scored, too.
His contributions were as varied as they were versatile, with Firmino frequently dropping deep to collect possession.
The Brazilian shows a wonderful economy of movement and a clear-headed efficiency on the ball. He looks for the best pass, not the Hollywood pass.
But his subtle displays should not underplay his importance.
In Juergen Klopp's fast and furious 4-3-3, Firmino is quickly becoming one of the side's most integral performers.
When future Champions League opponents analyse the Hoffenheim game, the eye will be drawn to Firmino.
The bit-part player of the past is now the main man in attack.
2. SECOND CHANCE FOR SAKHO OR SIGN SOMEONE
Joel Matip's most reliable playing partner is persona non grata. Klopp seeks to sell the only centre back capable of shoring up his inept defence.
Mamadou Sakho is a seasoned France international and the best of the bad options currently available to Liverpool.
The 27-year-old remains out of favour, with the club eager to offload a mercurial talent cursed with a temperament less reliable than Dejan Lovren in the box.
But Klopp needs to make a radical decision before the transfer window closes because the wheels have fallen off the Lovren-Matip tandem.
Even against Hoffenheim's kamikaze line-up, Liverpool's central defence was the obvious weak spot, sensitive to the slightest touch.
Lovren treated the ball as if it were toxic, gently prodding it back to the opponents ahead of their first goal.
Hoffenheim's second was essentially a free header at a set-piece.
The Reds' knack for self-destruction remains exasperating, always threatening to concede as many as they score.
Klopp and Sakho's fractured relationship is supposedly beyond repair.
So the pair must either "make nice" to prop up the back four or Klopp calls it quits and signs an immediate replacement.
3. THREE OF A KIND
Coutinho's enforced absence now presents Klopp with a welcome selection headache.
Liverpool's effervescent display leaves the team's most naturally gifted footballer with no obvious position.
Mane, Firmino and Mohamed Salah played with an attacking swagger not witnessed at Anfield since the title-challenging heyday of Daniel Sturridge, Luis Suarez and Raheem Sterling.
Back then, Coutinho was a second-tier superstar playing behind the front three, literally and metaphorically.
Against Hoffenheim, Georginio Wijnaldum occupied that role and Coutinho is obviously an upgrade on the erratic Dutch midfielder.
But Coutinho typically favours a more advanced role these days, either on the left side of the front three or slotting in at No. 10. Mane and Firmino took on those responsibilities and excelled.
Alongside Salah, the telepathic trio represent Liverpool's greatest assets in the Champions League.
Inventive and unpredictable, the three forwards terrified Hoffenheim. Other European opponents will be similarly fearful.
Should Coutinho stay, he may find himself in a floating role behind the front three. Mane, Firmino and Salah have made the forward line their own.
4. KEEP THE KID
At 18, Trent Alexander-Arnold should be one for the future. The trouble is he already owns the present.
Having scored that superb free-kick in the first leg, the teenager stepped out at Anfield under the weight of expectation and went off to a standing ovation.
He ruled at right back. His composure allowed Can to bomb forward and bag a brace.
Alexander-Arnold didn't score and his delivery was perhaps marginally less eye-catching than during the first leg, but he defended competently throughout.
That's a rare quality at Liverpool and more than enough to keep the kid in the side for the group stages.