Liverpool’s players can’t say they weren’t warned.
“If we are really dominant in a game, then we need to control it,” Liverpool coach Juergen Klopp said ahead of the Champions League match against Sevilla. “What we need is to be 100 percent focused in these moments.
“That is defending — being focused.”
Leading 3-0 after 30 minutes and cruising into the last 16 with a game to spare, Liverpool just needed to carry out its coach’s orders at the Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan Stadium.
Instead, a now-familiar collapse.
Liverpool conceded twice in the first 15 minutes of the second half and another deep into stoppage time to draw 3-3 with Sevilla . There was a near-post header from a free kick, a penalty, and a close-range finish after a corner wasn’t adequately cleared.
“We opened the door for them,” Klopp said. “Didn’t close it.”
Liverpool has been here before. Against Sevilla, in particular.
In the 2016 Europa League final between the teams, Liverpool led 1-0 at halftime and was in control, only to concede 17 seconds into the second half and eventually lose 3-1.
Then, at Anfield in the first meeting between them in this season’s Champions League, Liverpool led 2-1, missed a penalty and then switched off at a throw-in to concede a 72nd-minute equalizer in a 2-2 draw.
Liverpool should be secure in first place and with a spot in the knockout stage for the first time since 2009. Instead, a group finale at home against Spartak Moscow awaits, with a point still required to advance.
The English club’s fans must be despairing. As must Klopp, who thought he had fixed Liverpool’s porousness since the embarrassing 4-1 loss at Tottenham in the Premier League on Oct. 22. Since then, the team has won four games and conceded only one goal, with Klopp slightly reining in Liverpool’s attacking instincts that come so naturally when you have a front four of Philippe Coutinho, Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah.
The meltdown in Sevilla brought back all those bad memories, showing there is still a fundamental weakness in Liverpool’s defense and protection from midfield when the pressure is on.
“Yes it was not perfect but it’s not a general problem. It just happened,” Klopp said. “Could we have done better? One hundred percent. Do I think it’s a mentality problem? One hundred percent not.”
Only seven teams have conceded more goals than Liverpool in the Premier League this season. Of the so-called “Big 6” in the Premier League in Klopp’s time in England, Liverpool had the leakiest defense in the 2015-16 season and only Arsenal conceded more goals last season.
Left back Alberto Moreno has improved defensively this season, but he still has his critics and conceded the penalty against Sevilla — his former club — with a clumsy trip. None of three center backs at Klopp’s disposal — Joel Matip (who was injured for Tuesday’s match), Dejan Lovren and Ragnar Klavan — is a commanding presence, something which was needed as Sevilla grew in belief in the second half.
Klopp might yet renew his interest in Southampton defender Virgil van Dijk in the January transfer window.
Then there are the question marks over whether midfield anchorman Jordan Henderson is providing enough of a defensive barrier in front of the back four, or if the captain needs an extra deep-lying player alongside him.
“We stopped playing football,” Henderson said, in an attempt to explain the collapse, “that was the main thing.”
Klopp hailed Liverpool’s “new maturity” in the build-up to Tuesday’s game, but this was just more of the same. And until Liverpool finds the balance between its thrilling attacking play and its exposed defense, it likely will continue to happen.
Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80