Liverpool rocked by Red Star Belgrade in damaging defeat
Last year’s finalists’ knock-out hopes dealt a serious blow
Red Star Belgrade’s Serbian forward Milan Pavkov heads in his team’s first goal against Liverpool. Photograph: Getty Images
Liverpool have played 200 matches in the European Cup and Champions League but surely few in an atmosphere as wild as this or as meekly. Jürgen Klopp’s team floundered in the face of a vibrant Red Star Belgrade display, and a home crowd to match, as their prospects of reaching the knock-out phase were dealt a serious blow in the Serbian capital.
Two goals from striker Milan Pavkov, the second a truly outstanding effort, delivered a famous victory for Vladan Milojevic’s team and Red Star’s first win in the competition – qualifiers excluded – since they were defending champions in 1992. “A different beast at home,” Andy Robertson had described them. Liverpool’s left-back was not wrong. The worry for Klopp and company is that they have become a different proposition themselves away from Anfield in the Champions League this season. Paris Saint Germain await next in France. Liverpool have left themselves little margin for error.
The Marakana’s reputation for passion, hostility and incessant noise was no exaggeration. It was a spectacular backdrop and its team responded in kind. Heavily armed soldiers lined the entrances outside, a co-ordinated rendition of ’Fuck you Liverpool’ accompanied the visitors during the warm-up – one end of the stadium delivered the insult while the other timed ’Liverpool’ to perfection – and the volume levels increased in tandem with Red Star’s control of the contest. There was also a warm ovation for members of the Red Star team who beat Liverpool 2-1 at Anfield on this day in 1973 when they paraded around the pitch before kick off. The hosts’ performance befitted the backing they received from the terraces. Liverpool’s supported the theory that the Marakana intimidates too.
Klopp started without his most reliable forward in European competition, Roberto Firmino, who has been involved in more goals in the Champions League – 19 (12 goals and 7 assists) – than any other Liverpool player since the start of last season but has looked weary of late. Daniel Sturridge replaced the Brazilian and should have opened the scoring when Robertson turned Sadio Mané’s cross into his path through a crowded penalty area.
Sturridge looked certain to convert at the back post but, under no pressure, he skied wastefully over Milan Borjan’s goal. It would prove a costly miss, one that energised the home crowd even more, and a short-lived tactical switch by the Liverpool manager.
Sturridge’s role as a more static centre-forward than Firmino invited Mane and Mohamed Salah to attack down the flanks. While both found opportunity, and Virgil van Dijk made a dominant start in central defence, the Liverpool performance as a whole grew increasingly disjointed as the first half progressed.
Red Star opened brightly, as they did at Anfield in fairness, but this time they had the talent and support to capitalise. Former Chelsea midfielder Marko Marin missed the 4-0 defeat on Merseyside through injury but was at the heart of a creative and confident display from the Serbian champions. Pavkov, on the bench at Anfield, embraced his opportunity in place of the sidelined Richmond Boakye.
Marin had the first chance of the game when El Fardou Ben Nabouhane found him in too much space behind Trent Alexander-Arnold. He cut inside the right-back and shot tamely at Alisson, then served Liverpool warning of what was to come with a dangerous corner that produced a shot over from captain Vujadin Savic. Savic was another of those who missed the Anfield meeting and brought a marked improvement to the Red Star team.
The Marakana erupted following Marin’s next corner from the right. It was floated deep into the six yard area where the incoming Pavkov towered above Liverpool’s defenders and planted an unstoppable downward header beyond Alisson. The home fans were in uproar, Liverpool deflated, and worse followed within minutes for the visitors when the Red Star centre-forward doubled his tally for the evening in stunning fashion. Not that Klopp would see it that way. Collecting possession 40 yards from the Liverpool goal, Pavkov shrugged aside Georginio Wijnaldum easily before closing in. Van Dijk and Joël Matip retreated and the striker accepted their invitation to unleash a fabulous strike from distance that flew inside Alisson’s right hand post.
Liverpool were staring at a second damaging away defeat in the group and a mountainous assignment. No visiting team had won here since Arsenal in the Europa League in October 2017. Red Star had conceded only once in five previous European home matches this season – a campaign that began in the qualifying rounds four days before the World Cup final – and the visitors had not forced Borjan into one first half save. Klopp responded by introducing Firmino and Joe Gomez at half time for Sturridge and Alexander-Arnold respectively. He got the reaction the situation demanded but not the desired change in scoreline.
Within minutes of the restart Firmino created a good chance for Mané that two Red Star defenders managed to scramble clear. The tone for a dominant second half display by Liverpool had been set. Robertson had a cross deflected onto the crossbar by Filip Stojkovic, Salah struck the outside of a post following a James Milner corner – Salah also swept one of his own straight out of play – and Borjan saved twice from the Egypt international at close range. Van Dijk also headed over from Firmino’s cross as Liverpool exerted constant pressure and the hosts dug in for a famous victory.