European hits and misses: Liverpool need a miracle in Atalanta return leg to keep Europa League hopes alive | Football News

Liverpool down – but not completely out

Mohamed Salah saw a second-half strike chalked off after he'd strayed offside
Mohamed Salah saw a second-half strike against Atalanta chalked off after he had strayed offside

Liverpool need a miracle after losing 3-0 at home to Atalanta at Anfield. Either that, or a sprinkling of gold dust from the European vaults, the sort that sparks a comeback for the ages.

Liverpool and famous European fightbacks. Rings a faint bell.

Many unforgettable nights have been enjoyed in Europe under Jurgen Klopp. This was not one of them.

The German made six changes to the Reds’ starting XI, in a bid to freshen things up following a taxing trip to Old Trafford at the weekend, but the swaps did exactly the opposite.

Everything felt strained and laboured – ponderous in possession and ragged out of it.

Tactically, Klopp admitted Liverpool “lost the plot”. The equivalent of pushing the big red ‘self-destruct’ button.

Asked if the tie was still alive post-match, he said: “I don’t want to talk about that”. Klopp’s final European foray risks ending with a damp squib, but for a miraculous recovery in Bergamo next Thursday.

They couldn’t, could they?
Laura Hunter

Alonso delivers Midas touch to break West Ham

Victor Boniface of Bayer Leverkusen celebrates scoring his team's second goal against West Ham
Victor Boniface of Bayer Leverkusen celebrates scoring his side’s second goal against West Ham

Everything Xabi Alonso touches turns to gold – and West Ham found that out the hard way.

David Moyes nearly produced a masterclass in resolute defending as his side frustrated the hosts for 82 minutes. West Ham had even gone close with the best chance of the first half at the end of a quick counter-attack.

But Alonso, the hottest property in management, was not going to be denied coming up against Premier League opposition for the first time. His calm presence on the touchline transferred to his team. Leverkusen stayed patient.

Alonso’s first changes were subtle. West Ham were restricted going forward far more in the second half than the first as Leverkusen cut off the supply to Michail Antonio by quickly smothering Lucas Paqueta and Mohammed Kudus when the ball was turned over. The visitors had no way out.

Jonas Hofmann of Bayer Leverkusen celebrates scoring against West Ham
Jonas Hofmann celebrates scoring the opener against West Ham

Leverkusen would have scored sooner but for an inspired performance by Lukasz Fabianski. However, Alonso knew he had quality on the bench to call upon. He did not rush his substitutes, eventually bringing on the two match-winners Jonas Hofmann and Victor Boniface with only 15 minutes left to add the killer touch his side needed.

Leverkusen can lift the Bundesliga title this weekend and are well on their way to reaching the Europa League semi-finals next week as Alonso’s Midas touch continues.
David Richardson

Villa stretched to limit in pursuit of European glory

Ollie Watkins celebrates scoring for Aston Villa against Lille
Ollie Watkins celebrates scoring for Aston Villa against Lille

Paulo Fonseca, the Lille manager, will know that an early goal at home next week will change the complexion of a tie that is wide open after his side lost 2-1 at Villa Park. Villa have work to do in order to reach their first European semi-final since they won the European Cup in 1982.

They are locked in a battle with Spurs to finish in the Premier League top four and qualify for the Champions League, but they are simultaneously chasing their first trophy in 28 years. In the Europa Conference League, they are still going strong, but there can be no let up in France.

Unai Emery’s European pedigree – having won four Europa Leagues at Sevilla and Villarreal – has given Villa an extra aura but the Spaniard will be keen to test his impressive outfit against the continent’s best teams next term.

Aston Villa's John McGinn celebrates scoring the second goal against Lille
John McGinn celebrates scoring the second goal for Villa

The safety net of fifth place equating to an extra spot suffered a blow on Thursday night given Liverpool and West Ham’s travails. Emery cannot afford to shift his focus fully on ending the club’s wait for silverware despite Opta’s supercomputer giving his side a 95 per cent chance of finishing in the top five domestically.

He cannot take his foot off the gas in any game and selected his strongest side despite facing Arsenal in three days’ time, knowing that managing the load at this stage of Europe’s third-best competition will likely compromise Villa’s momentum.

Progression all the way to the final in Athens would mean another four matches on top of their six remaining Premier League games, so their squad will be tested if they do make it that far. With Ollie Watkins in the side, anything is possible, though.
Ben Grounds

Martinez is the key to Villa’s lead

Villa owe their slender advantage to goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez. The statistics suggest the Argentina international has saved three more goals than expected in the Premier League this season. It felt like he managed that in one night against Lille.

The stats will say the odds were not that badly against him but when players race behind the defence with only the goalkeeper to beat, they are disappointed if they fail to finish. And yet, against Martinez, the odds seem to tilt more in his favour.

Emiliano Martinez was on form in Aston Villa's first-leg win over Lille in the Europa Conference League
Emiliano Martinez was on form in Aston Villa’s first-leg win over Lille in the Europa Conference League

The World Cup winner exudes confidence – arrogance, even. Everyone saw that in Qatar and he carries that reputation with pride but the edge is technical as well as mental. He forced Jonathan David wide. Stood up when Edon Zhegrova looked for the corner.

Emery has been much praised for his success at Villa – and rightly so. But this was a night that offered a reminder of the importance of their goalkeeper in facilitating that. Do not be surprised if Martinez makes the difference in the return leg too.
Adam Bate

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