An inspired display in front of their raucous home crowd on Wednesday saw Red Star Belgrade stun Liverpool with a 2-0 victory courtesy of a Milan Pavkov double, which leaves them in the hunt for the knockout stages.
The Reds came into this game aiming to become the first team to defeat Crvena Zvezda at home this season, and they should have taken the lead when Daniel Sturridge had a chance from point-blank range, blazing over the bar from the top of the six-yard box.
A fine save from Alisson saw a corner awarded to the hosts, which gave rise to the opener as Pavkov flew into the box unmarked and thumped a header into the net to send the Rajko Mitic Stadium into raptures.
It was two in just over six minutes when Pavkov picked up the ball in his attacking half, shrugged off pressure from Georginio Wijnaldum and sent a 25-yard screamer past a hapless Alisson and in for his second in quick succession.
Jurgen Klopp made two half time substitutions in an effort to turn the tide of the match in his side’s favour, and despite Andrew Robertson having a cross deflected onto the crossbar and Mohamed Salah striking the upright, it was not to be on a frustrating night for Liverpool.
Red Star back in the fold
Vladan Milojevic’s team was simply superb in this match, as from the opening whistle it had the beating of Liverpool and was fully deserving of all three points. With the backing of the fans in the stands, the Serbian outfit suffocated the Reds side that never really looked like working its way back into the contest after going two goals down.
With six changes from the team that was beaten 4-0 at Anfield just a fortnight ago, the home team looked a completely different proposition from that match, with the energy and intensity in their play matched with directness and quality moving forward.
From a position where they, much like most of the footballing world, were likely thinking that their Champions League run would make it no further than the group stages, suddenly they are just two points away from advancing into the knockout stages, with a home tie against PSG to finish the group.
Those two points are all that separate the entire of Group C, with Napoli and Liverpool equal on six, PSG one further back on five and Crvena Zvezda sitting on four points.
Should Milojevic’s men steal a point from Naples and claim victory at home against PSG, a task that is not necessarily all that unlikely given their performance in this match, they could be one of the fairytale stories going into the round of 16.
Lacklustre Reds fail to fight
Post-game, James Milner admitted that the game was lost from the first minute as his teammates started sluggishly, while Klopp conceded that “we lost our mojo”.
So used to the at times deafening support of Anfield, Liverpool were exposed to all new kinds of support in this game, and had somewhat of a taste of their own medicine as they were drowned out by the singing and shouting of the Red Star faithful.
The effect of this was evident on the pitch. Liverpool’s players looked timid, they looked shocked and they looked lost for answers as the game flew past them within the opening half hour.
Sturridge blew his chance for further gameplay with a very passive influence from the No.9 role, visibly growing frustrated and seemingly selfish whenever he managed to find a touch of the ball.
It was in the midfield however – a part of the pitch where Liverpool have counted on to win games this season – where it ultimately broke down for the visitors.
Not a single tackle was won in the first half between Milner, Wijnaldum and Adam Lallana in the middle for the Reds, as Crvena Zvezda bossed possession and handled everything that Liverpool attempted to throw at them.
With Naby Keita on the bench and not fit to play a part and Xherdan Shaqiri left at Melwood due to fears of his reception due to political reasons, Liverpool sorely missed a linkman between midfield and attack to keep them on the front foot.
Liverpool have now won just three of their last nine games and have yet to score a goal away from home in the Champions League, a run they will be hoping to end when they travel to Parc des Princes at the end of November for a game that could define their season.
Plenty of football to be played
Albeit a damaging result, there is still plenty of time for Liverpool to put this right, 180 minutes of time in fact as they will head into their final two Champions League games with an aura of ‘must-win’ about them.
The Reds’ league form has somewhat stagnated in recent weeks, however they are crucially maintaining consistent results, are just two points off the top of the league and are still unbeaten in the Premier League.
Champions League qualification is in their hands and they have more than enough quality to ensure that they advance to the knockout stages.
Liverpool have the perfect opportunity to turn things around with a home league fixture at home to very much out of form Fulham on Sunday, and Klopp will be hoping that game will kick off a run of strong form both domestically and in continental football for his team.