Neil Humphreys: Thiago Alcantara is made for Europe
Spanish midfielder seems more comfortable in continental contests, where he can strut his stuff
The Champions League represents Liverpool's last shot at silverware and Thiago Alcantara's natural playground is the Champions League.
A diagram is not required here. Both the Reds and their Spanish midfielder are made for Europe.
Like a ballet after a bullfight, Alcantara's performances in the English Premier League and the Champions League are night and day.
During the Reds' 2-0 first-leg win over RB Leipzig in the Round of 16 yesterday morning (Singapore time), he was elegant and precise. In the EPL, he can resemble a traumatised matador in search of a red cape as thundering hooves close in.
Once he grew into the game, his teammates followed suit, as if there was an unspoken acceptance that they might have a chance of actually winning this trophy.
Initially, the other Alcantara started against the German side, the EPL one that appeared to be wading through treacle against Leicester City, the one that's a yard slow and late on arrival.
But Leipzig went toe-to-toe against the Reds, or press-to-press, pushing up their wing-backs in a thoroughly entertaining game of tactical brinkmanship. The bold move played into Alcantara's feet.
Suddenly, the gifted technician had space. Suddenly, the two-time Champions League winner was afforded the freedom often found against European heavyweights. Suddenly, he looked like the confident distributor that Pep Guardiola insisted on taking with him from Barcelona to Bayern Munich.
Liberated, Alcantara treated us to a greatest hits package.
A lofted pass was hit to Mohamed Salah, first time, and found the target. Defensive headers sent the Reds scurrying away on the counter-attack. An interception unleashed Sadio Mane and led to a disallowed header from Roberto Firmino.
For 70 minutes, Leipzig coach Julian Nagelsmann, one of the latest coaching wunderkind from the Bundesliga production line, had no response to Alcantara, no real means of stopping the Spaniard.
Once the game was won, Alcantara was substituted, having passed the Champions League audition. The jury is still out on his EPL suitability, but the Reds are out of the running so that's a debate for next season.
Right now, Europe offers the only path to redemption and the 29-year-old may lead the way against elite opponents less likely to park buses.
The last time Alcantara featured in a Champions League tie, he was holding the trophy aloft in a Bayern jersey. He has suffered for his art ever since.
Liverpool's dramatic loss of domestic form, played out beneath the omnipresent cloud of Covid-19, has understandably drawn attention away from what has been an awful debut campaign for their £27.3 million (S$50.3m) summer signing.
He caught the virus in the autumn, recovered, and then limped off with a knee problem in the Merseyside Derby. To add insult to a literal injury, Virgil van Dijk was famously injured in the same game, leaving Alcantara the forgotten man.
When he did tentatively return, the Spaniard wandered into a brittle dressing room that had lost too many players, along with its self-belief.
It didn't seem fair.
An intelligent, eye-catching playmaker, he looked like a Shakespearean actor on the set of The Walking Dead. A class act was out of place among the weary and wounded.
Just two wins in his eight EPL starts hardly suggested Alcantara belonged in English football. But the stats didn't paint an accurate position of where he and Liverpool were, physically and psychologically.
So the artist went to work on his own canvas against Leipzig.
He wasn't perfect. Passes still went awry and he didn't quite dominate as he once did at Bayern.
But there were a couple of lovely flicks and nifty interceptions to remind us of the midfielder who once topped the Bundesliga passing statistics. There was a glimpse of the man who would be king in Europe. Again.
The midfielder and the Merseysiders both have a sense of occasion when it comes to knockout stages, lifting their games in the grandest settings.
Alcantara already has two winners' medals in the cabinet. He also has the tools to complete a Champions League hat-trick.
Klopp: People expected us to slip up against Leipzig, but we didn't
Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp has urged his men to build on their impressive Champions League last-16 away win against RB Leipzig which ended their three-match losing run.
The Reds put up a slick performance to win the first leg in Budapest 2-0 yesterday morning (Singapore time), thanks to Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane's second-half goals.
However, with Liverpool lying sixth in the English Premier League table, Klopp knows they must keep improving.
"We're not children any more, it's not as though we won that game and everything is fine again," Klopp told reporters at the Puskas Arena.
The German was heartened to see his side bounce back after morale-sapping defeats by Leicester City, Manchester City and Brighton & Hove Albion in recent weeks.
"People expected us to slip up and thought it would be a tricky tie for Liverpool, but we did it," he said.
"Whatever they tried, we had answers. They had chances, but the majority of the time we controlled the game well and that doesn't happen a lot against Leipzig."
Klopp, who kept his centre-back pairing of Ozan Kabak and skipper Jordan Henderson, also singled out goalkeeper Alisson for making key saves after committing gaffes in recent games.
He said: "We kept a clean sheet, we scored two goals, we forced our opponents to make the mistakes we have pretty much made in the last few weeks."
An uncharacteristic error by Leipzig captain Marcel Sabitzer resulted in a loose pass which was snapped up by Salah to open accounts in the 53rd minute.
Five minutes later, centre-back Nordi Mukiele slipped while attempting a clearance, and Mane needed no second invitation to fire past the German side's goalkeeper Peter Gulacsi.
Having guided Leipzig to the Champions League semi-finals last season, coach Julian Nagelsmann said his side will fight in the second leg on March 10.
"We made two huge mistakes which would be punished at any level," Nagelsmann told DAZN.
"We created chances, which we didn't take, which will be a big topic for the second leg."
Spanish midfielder Thiago Alcantara, who has yet to shine after an injury-plagued start to his Liverpool career, looked more comfortable in a continental contest after being criticised for his domestic showings.
BT Sport pundits Rio Ferdinand and Michael Owen, however, said it was too early to judge the 29-year-old, who won the Champions League with Bayern Munich last season.
"I want to judge him when the team is back playing like we know they can," said Owen. - AFP