Liverpool’s impressive performance away to Borussia Dortmund in the first leg of their Europa League tie rightly brought them plaudits. They largely nullified the threat of Marco Reus, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan and but for Roman Weidenfeller, would’ve been celebrating a famous victory. Social Media was abuzz Sunday afternoon with the news that Dortmund coach Thomas Tuchel had opted to rest his first choice full-backs, midfield and attack for the fierce local derby against Schalke in preparation for the second leg against Liverpool. This is a Dortmund side still chasing Bayern Munich for the Bundesliga title, yet Tuchel opting to save so many of his stars for Thursday tells you just how important this Europa League quarter final is to Dortmund.
With Dortmund v Schalke kicking off 90 minutes before Liverpool’s Premier League match against Stoke, attention switched from Dortmund’s line-up to what sort of team Jürgen Klopp would put out; was he going to rest players like Tuchel? The answer was yes and no. Injury and suspension forced the omission of Jordan Henderson and Emre Can, but Philippe Coutinho, Adam Lallana, Mamadou Sakho and Dejan Lovren were all given a break, whilst Roberto Firmino got his first start since returning from injury and Daniel Sturridge came back in for Divock Origi. Klopp also opted to give a Premier League debuts to Kevin Stewart and youngster Sheyi Ojo in a mixed team for what was anticipated to be a tough test from Stoke. For the lion’s share of the first half, Stoke somewhat lived up to that expectation, with the height of Peter Crouch proving to be a handful.
Liverpool started the game sharply though and with less than eight minutes on the clock, James Milner quickly played a free kick short to Alberto Moreno, who hit a blockbuster shot with his left foot just inside the far post. It was unusual to see a Stoke side switch off like that, but an encouraging sign for Klopp that his side were alert and fired up. It didn’t take long for Liverpool’s Achilles heel to resurface – Martin Skrtel, getting his first outing since his cataclysmic display against Southampton, needlessly committed a foul on Crouch 30 yards from goal. From the free-kick, Milner screamed for his team mates to hold their line, which some duly did, but Kolo Toure retreated and played everyone onside. The result was Bojan, the smallest guy on the pitch, ran in unabated to head the ball home. You get the feeling that working on defending set pieces will be high on the list of priorities for Klopp and his coaching staff in pre-season, probably with some different personnel. Until then, Klopp and his staff will have to make the best of what they have and certainly cannot afford to have that kind of confusion come Thursday night because one thing Dortmund did show in last week’s first leg, was that they are a threat from set pieces.
Things could’ve got worse against Stoke when Liverpool failed to defend a simple cross and Crouch headed in from close range, but he’d strayed offside to let off the Reds defence. Liverpool regained their composure and just after the half hour mark, a lovely piece of skill from Ojo got him past Shaqiri and his dinked in cross was met by Sturridge. It was a nice moment, as the Liverpool players gathered together and congratulated Ojo for his part in the goal. From thereon in, Liverpool didn’t really look back in the game. Origi was introduced at the break, in place of Ojo, and immediately made his mark. Liverpool have been almost as bad with attacking set pieces this season, as they have been defending them, but a short corner led to a very good left foot cross from Milner that left the Stoke defence on their heels as Origi ghosted in behind them at the far post to head in Liverpool’s third.
By the time Origi had turned right-back Phil Bardsley inside out before his cross-come-shot nestled in the bottom corner, to put Liverpool 4-1 up, Stoke looked dishevelled. This was not the Stoke City that normally come to Anfield and their manager, Mark Hughes, cut a forlorn figure on the bench. For Origi, it was his third goal in a matter of days, following the impressive manner in which he led the line in the Westfalenstadion and the Belgian starlet has been transformed from the clumsy and peripheral figure he looked at the beginning of this campaign. He linked up well with Sturridge, whose movement in this game was a joy to behold and the pair have given Klopp a selection dilemma for Thursday. Whether it be Sturridge, Origi or both, the Dortmund centre-backs will not be relishing the second leg. Firmino looked increasingly sharp against Stoke and Joe Allen had a very good game in what was an excellent warm up for another huge European night at Anfield. Dortmund protected stars in their 2-2 draw at Schalke to ensure they are ready for the Europa League and on this evidence, Liverpool are ready too.