With AC Milan enjoying a long-awaited return to the Champions League – a stage built for the Rossonerri just as much for their opening group stage opponents – the clash with Liverpool was rightly billed as a potential instant classic.
Despite largely controlling the proceedings in the first 45, Anfield was left stunned by the late comeback from Stefano Pioli’s men, who lead at the break courtesy of a quickfire double from Ante Rebic and Brahim Diaz.
How did you feel going into the game? Were you confident?
Far from confident.
It has been mentioned several times by our management and even by our head coach Stefano Pioli that the path taken by Liverpool is one we are trying to emulate, as they have done a fantastic job under Jurgen Klopp of going from Europa League mediocrity (with respect) to being established in the elite again.
I firmly believe in that path, the problem is that Liverpool started it 3-4 years before us and it showed on the field.
I was really excited to see us pitted against Liverpool though, because it was obvious immediately that it would be a fantastic learning experience for the very young squad that we have, both in terms of playing at an atmosphere like Anfield and playing against such an intense team.
What were your thoughts on the starting XI and did Pioli get it right?
The big shame for us heading into the game is that we couldn’t field a proper No.9 with Zlatan Ibrahimovic injured and Olivier Giroud not at 100% post-Covid. That hurt us in establishing any kind of presence in the final third.
The other selections were rather obvious given the lack of midfield depth as Franck Kessie was the only 100% fit midfielder.
Ismael Bennacer has also struggled post-Covid and Sandro Tonali had an intestinal problem the day before the game, so we struggled in that area.
Without making excuses, we were once again stung in a few key spots in addition to having players who played a lot of minutes on international duty.
What were your thoughts on how the game unfolded and where was it won and lost?
It unfolded almost exactly as I expected and in a way as I feared.
Klopp clearly told his troops to get in our faces, press as intensely as possible to keep us unsettled and to have the game won in the first 45 minutes.
In truth, Milan are lucky that they were wasteful and that the penalty was missed.
The midfield was completely overrun. Milan just simply are not used to that intensity – nobody in Serie A plays anything close to that speed and it really showed.
The atmosphere added to the ‘rabbits in the headlights’ feeling, but Maignan and Tomori stepped up and we stayed in the game.
Then the players slowly learned that with a bit of composure we could pass our way through the press quickly, resulting in the two quick fire goals before half-time which were regrettably the Rossoneri’s two only moments of real quality.
Scoring when we did was fantastic for morale but I remarked on the concourse at half-time while sipping a £2.90 Carlsberg (thanks Liverpool, very reasonable that) that we might just have poked the beast and forced some of the big guns on earlier.
The game was lost when Milan conceded within four minutes of the restart, it’s that simple really. We weren’t going to score again, and there was only one winner after that. A strike of quality secured a result that was fair on the balance of play.
Who were the key performers?
For Milan it was certainly Maignan – who made several key saves – and Tomori. The latter is used to the pace of the Premier League and you could really see that, as he was the only one out of the back line that could keep up.
Out of the forward group, you can see Brahim Diaz might have some joy if he can learn to back his dribbling ability a bit more, while Rebic is an ice cold finisher without doubt and Saelemaekers caused issues drifting in field but at the expense of offering cover for Calabria on the right.
There are a lot of star names in that Liverpool side and it was still a strong XI despite a couple of changes, but I’ll go with someone a bit different and say Jordan Henderson.
Having been at Wembley for a recent England game and having been there in the flesh on Wednesday, I can honestly say you really appreciate first hand how much he can control a game, and when distributing the ball he is one of the most effective midfielders in world football. He makes that entire unit tick.
Has your opinion of Liverpool changed after the game?
Not in terms of playing style and how I expected them to come at us early, but perhaps what we did see is that Milan can hang in the game even against the best sides playing at their most fluid, and can cause issues up the other end.
There is simply so much quality in the Liverpool squad that in a way it shows how far we have to go, but the whole occasion overall and the game itself was befitting of the European heritage that both sides have.
Also, I have been to Anfield before on multiple occasions before but not for an occasion quite like this, and have to remark that the atmosphere was special. It made it really difficult for our players; Liverpool fans need realise (if they don’t already) that it is one of their biggest weapons.
The other result being a draw was positive. Who do you think progresses from our group?
I still think it will be Liverpool and Atletico Madrid because of the experience and quality that they have, but the other result certainly was a surprise.
The games against Atleti could be decisive for both Milan and Liverpool – my hope is that if we do go out we take it right to the sixth game!