Liverpool send unconvincing Premier League title message with tentative step forward in lost cause

Steven Chicken
Liverpool players react to their Europa League exit
Liverpool are out of the Europa League despite winning away to Atalanta

Well, that was exactly what we expected. Liverpool had a go, and a few minutes in, after Mohamed Salah’s penalty hit the bottom corner, you wondered whether another big red European comeback might be on.

Despite the way Salah grabbed the ball after his spot kick to immediately deposit it on the centre spot, Liverpool wisely resisted the urge to try and race to a second. Atalanta posed just enough threat on the counter-attack to expose what folly it would have been for Jurgen Klopp to release the crampons too soon and try to go free-climbing. That route would clearly lead to a nasty fall.

Bergamesque Alps too steep for ailing Liverpool to climb

But the step up in level Liverpool needed after their dismal first-leg outing and equally miserable, sloppy performance against Crystal Palace meant the three-goal Bergamesque Alps were always likely to be too high a peak and too steep an incline for this wounded mountaineer to scale to completion.

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There were signs of a better, more capable Liverpool in among some occasional moments of that same looseness in possession. They were, simply put, doing far less daft crap than they had produced in those past two terrible outings.

Trent Alexander-Arnold’s return to the side gave them a better passing range. Salah, Cody Gakpo and Luis Diaz’s running through the middle – rarely out to the wings, with Liverpool ploughing the narrowest of furrows until the final 20 minutes – threatened to give Liverpool the ideal targets for the equally narrow-sitting full-back to pick out over the top.

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Three big sliding doors moments came barely three minutes apart, late in the first half, right when a goal for either side would have set the stage for the second half. Salah raced onto a Gakpo ball over the top, but was unable to finish the story Cody wrote for him, attempting to lob a stranded goalkeeper only to watch in dismay as his shinned effort span further and further wide of goal.

Atalanta put the ball in the net moments later, but Teun Koopmeiners was about as offside as it is possible to be. Still, it was a potent reminder to Liverpool of the dangers of over-committing and under-thinking.

Then, controversially, Isak Hien cynically handled a through ball that would otherwise have given Diaz a chance to show Salah how it was done. With the penalty box still another 15-20 yards ahead, the referee apparently felt the goalscoring opportunity was not obvious enough to warrant a straight red card, instead producing a yellow.

You could see Liverpool’s argument, which Diaz stated strongly enough to earn a booking of his own; but it was, on reflection, probably the right call.

Liverpool peter out in second half to exit Europa League without much fuss

That left two possibilities for the second period: it was either going to peter out to a miserable end for Liverpool, or go absolutely batsh*t.

We got the first one.

Going from dreadful to disciplined, if underwhelming, is a slight improvement Klopp can now start to build from again as they try to regain momentum in the Premier League title hunt.

Given the size of their task here, he will take encouragement from the fact that his side lived up to that even if they fell short of the outright brilliance they needed. In truth, even a scintillating Liverpool display may well have fallen short against an Atalanta side that looked nervy at times in the first half, but grew and grew in stature and composure as the game wore on and Liverpool were forced to withdraw their recently-returned brighter stars.

That leaves Aston Villa as the sole English representatives in Europe – and that, of course, means the title race will now be contested by three sides who have nothing more strenuous than Manchester City’s one or two FA Cup games to focus on.

Which says it all, really: short of the bloody incredible, this night was always going to be end up assessed in terms of what it told us about Liverpool’s title hopes. To which the answer is…not a great deal, to be honest. Better, yes, but a long way still to go before they look at all convincing again.

More: Liverpool | Jurgen Klopp’s replacement