For 75 minutes San Siro bounced with a belief and energy that befitted Inter’s performance. By the 83rd it was a stadium of silent disbelief, save for the jubilant pocket of Liverpool fans who had just witnessed Champions League experience rise to the fore. Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah struck late on to give Jürgen Klopp’s side a firm grip on this last-16 tie.
Salah extended his club record for scoring in successive European away games to an eighth match while Firmino came off the bench to inflict the first punishment on the Italian champions.
There was an unforgettable reward for Harvey Elliott after five months out with a dislocated ankle. The midfielder, who had impressed in two substitute outings since his recovery, was handed his Champions League debut by Klopp and, at 18 years and 318 days, replaced Trent Alexander-Arnold as the youngest player to start in the competition for Liverpool.
What a stage on which to make his bow. San Siro may be fading in its concrete grandeur, on borrowed time with its replacement planned down the road, and it was at 50% capacity due to Italy’s Covid restrictions. But it remains an iconic, raucous arena, and the noise was rolling down from its towering stands long before kick-off, including plenty from the 2,180 Liverpool fans situated up in the gods.
Both sets of supporters were treated to an open and absorbing game, although their teams’ commitment to attack and willingness to flood forward in numbers produced few genuine chances before the interval. Neither Alisson nor Samir Handanovic had a save to make in the opening 45 minutes. It was not for the want of trying, however. Lautaro Martínez swept the first attempt of the tie past the Liverpool goalkeeper’s right-hand post seconds after Thiago Alcântara had released Mohamed Salah with a precise long ball down the right. A combination of the covering Alessandro Bastoni and Salah’s misplaced backheel enabled the hosts to survive that early scare.
Stefan de Vrij blocked another Salah shot and, from the resulting corner, Fabinho had two half-chances to continue his prolific recent form in front of goal. His initial header fell to Sadio Mané, whose attempted overhead kick fell back to the midfielder. A last-ditch interception denied Fabinho the chance to mark his 150th Liverpool appearance in style.
Liverpool’s best opening of the first half fell to Mané, who met Andy Robertson’s deep free-kick with a free header that he sent wastefully over Handanovic’s crossbar. Inter almost punished Liverpool immediately with what would have been a stunning goal.
A flowing move invited Ivan Perisic to take on and beat Alexander-Arnold down the left. Klopp’s former double winner at Borussia Dortmund crossed to Hakan Calhanoglu at the near post and the midfielder, having controlled neatly with his first touch, crashed a shot from an acute angle against the face of Alisson’s crossbar.
The game continued to flow, with both sides occasionally inviting trouble with wayward distribution out of defence but lacking the clinical touch to capitalise on the invitations. Mané sent another overhead kick into the side-netting, de Vrij threw himself in the way of a Diogo Jota shot and Edin Dzeko headed wide from Calhanoglu’s corner. When Dzeko got his next sight of Alisson’s goal, played clean through by Perisic’s fine crossfield pass, Van Dijk cruised beyond the 35-year-old to mop up the danger.
Klopp reunited the old triple act of Salah, Mané and Roberto Firmino for the second half when he introduced the Brazilian centre-forward for Jota. The Portugal international may have been nursing a leg injury but there was also a need to improve Liverpool’s composure and creativity in the final third, and Firmino remains an invaluable asset in that regard. It was the threat from Inter and Perisic in particular that grew early in the second half, however.
The Croatia international found space and also his forwards with alarming regularity from a Liverpool perspective as Inter took control of midfield. Denzel Dumfries carved the visitors open with a diagonal ball that Perisic trapped with a superb first touch. He crossed for the unmarked Martínez arriving at the back post but just too high for the striker to connect. Liverpool would have been in trouble had it been the taller Dzeko.
Ibrahima Konaté and Van Dijk both intercepted dangerous Perisic crosses as the pressure intensified. Klopp had seen enough and made a triple substitution on the hour, replacing two-thirds of his midfield and injecting Luis Díaz’s menace into the attack.
There was an immediate jolt to the Liverpool performance. Díaz found himself free inside the Inter penalty area following a neat exchange with Alexander-Arnold. Milan Skriniar blocked the Colombia international’s first time shot and was so impressed with himself he punched the air. His celebrations would not last long.
Arturo Vidal had produced a typically tigerish display in midfield but one minor lapse transformed the complexion of the entire tie. Having tracked and tackled Salah deep in his own half, Vidal attempted to sweep the ball away from Liverpool’s leading goalscorer but succeeded only in releasing Alexander-Arnold behind the Inter defence. Marcelo Brozovic covered at the expense of a corner. Robertson took it and Firmino, rising highest at the near post, flicked a glancing header beyond Handanovic.
It was a precious if somewhat unexpected breakthrough for Liverpool but there was more to come. With seven minutes remaining Alexander-Arnold sent a free-kick deep into the Inter area. Van Dijk won the initial header that eventually found its way to Salah standing unmarked on the penalty spot. His shot trickled past Handanovic with the aid of a deflection and, having been under pressure for much of the second half, Liverpool had one foot in the quarter-finals.