The nightmare that is Virgil van Dijk as Anfield’s pivotal role awaits – Liverpool FC

Undeniably, Italian club football isn’t what it was, and it hasn’t been for quite some time now, but this was still Liverpool walking into the San Siro to beat the reigning Serie A champions with a very intelligent and grown-up display.

One foot into the quarter-finals, an evening of focus at Anfield in just under three weeks’ time will finish the job off, while any lack of concentration on our behalf will act as an invite to Internazionale to have a pop at an unlikely comeback.

A third gear sort of performance, away to the best team Serie A has to offer on a night when we denied them even one single effort on target. This was a result obtained within a “because we can” ethos.

Fine lines and all that, Hakan Calhanoglu impressively hitting the crossbar was as close as our hosts came to scoring. Beyond that, it was all ifs and buts for them.

What if that shot from Lautaro Martínez hadn’t been half a yard wide of the post? What if Ivan Perišic hadn’t put too much purchase on his cross when Inter compellingly hit us on the break? What if Edin Džeko hadn’t been offside by a mile when put through on goal? What if Perišic’s fizzing shot from distance had been half a yard lower and three yards to the left?

MILAN, ITALY - Tuesday, February 15, 2022: Liverpool's Sadio Mané attempts an over head kick during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 1st Leg game between FC Internazionale Milano and Liverpool FC at the Stadio San Siro. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

To be fair, for 75 minutes it wasn’t much different for Liverpool either.

What if that effort which Thiago skimmed had been caught a yard further back from goal? What if Sadio Mane’s header or bicycle kick had been on target? What if Trent Alexander-Arnold had been a bit more accurate with that free kick? What if Luis Diaz’s effort hadn’t been blocked?

It made for an evening of shadow boxing, until Bobby Firmino made the breakthrough with a magnificent glancing header from an Andy Robertson corner, which was then followed by a Mohamed Salah effort that combined fine collective movement, a vaguely untidy passage of play, and a deflection, before nestling in the back of the Inter net. Our second goal was one of fusion between Liverpool vision and Inter misadventure.

Liverpool’s substitutes made the difference, as beyond Firmino’s contribution, Inter struggled to cope with the enthusiasm of Díaz, while both Naby Keita and Jordan Henderson made valuable cameos, the latter’s best moment still being the look he gave Joel Matip for slapping him on the head during the celebrations for the opening goal.

Is Matip allowed to be man of the match without setting foot on the pitch?

MILAN, ITALY - Tuesday, February 15, 2022: Liverpool's Roberto Firmino celebrates after scoring the first goal during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 1st Leg game between FC Internazionale Milano and Liverpool FC at the Stadio San Siro. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Defensively, Liverpool were excellent, stubborn and overbearing. At one point, Martínez opted not to go one-on-one with Virgil van Dijk during the first half so unsettled at the prospect was he. Our centre half, our number four, he gets into the head of his opponents before they arrive at the stadium, probably even overnight while they are trying to sleep.

Ibrahima Konaté also put in a rock-like performance. We are blessed.

A game that was always going to be a sterner test than the one we were originally handed, against Red Bull Salzburg, a botched draw later and it was the Serie A champions instead, which probably did us a favour, given the difficulties Bayern Munich encountered in Vienna.

It always feels like we are on safer ground in the knockout stages of the Champions League, when we are up against fellow European royalty, as opposed to well-organised underdogs. Seven games into our Champions League campaign and it’s seven wins out of seven.

Mohamed Salah and Ibrahima Konate of Liverpool celebrate after scoring during the UEFA Champions League Round of Sixteen Leg One match between FC Inter Milan (Giuseppe Maffia / Alamy Stock Photo)

We’ve been word-perfect so far, but there is still much work to be done if this campaign is to bring us an end of season road trip to Saint Petersburg, and a seventh European Cup.

Inter will come at us again, at Anfield. They have nothing to lose at 0-2 down, which will make them dangerous and unpredictable if we allow them the breathing space to be so.

As a team, while Inter have been marvellously consistent this season, and coped impressively with the losses of Antonio Conte, Romelu Lukaku, Achraf Hakimi and, of course, Christian Eriksen – amid ownership rancour and even a near-death experience in the case of the latter, they have struggled in the biggest of games.

Wednesday night’s outcome was fresh off the back of them losing to AC Milan in the Derby della Madonnina and dropping points away to Napoli, a pair of results that has blown the Serie A title race wide open once again.

MILAN, ITALY - Tuesday, February 15, 2022: Liverpool's manager Jürgen Klopp (L) and captain Jordan Henderson celebrate after the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 1st Leg game between FC Internazionale Milano and Liverpool FC at the Stadio San Siro. Liverpool won 2-0. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

It will be interesting to see how Inter do domestically between now and the second leg. There could be an increasing desperation about them by the time they roll into Anfield.

Now we refocus on our own domestic matters, while hoping that the ankle injury that ended Diogo Jota’s evening at half time isn’t a serious one.

Apart from a trip to Wembley for the League Cup final, all of Liverpool’s games up to the visit of Inter are at Anfield, in which they have the chance to shape a potentially silver-laden run-in to the end of the season.

Pivotal weeks are upon us.

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