Alexander-Arnold stepped up for Liverpool – Salah and Szoboszlai need to do the same

Great comebacks are often defined by moments of brilliance or the difference-makers stepping up to power their team to victory.

Against Atalanta, Trent Alexander-Arnold did his best. Despite it being first start since February 10, the 25-year-old was Liverpool’s driving force as his side exited the Europa League. They beat Atalanta 1-0 on the night in their quarter-final second leg.

It just turned out that their 3-0 defeat from the first leg was too big a deficit to overturn.

Alexander-Arnold’s first pass of note was a raking switch which released Luis Diaz in behind. It came to nothing but the Italian side had something different to deal with from the first leg.

It set the tone. He was the engineer of everything that Liverpool did well in the first half — including winning the early penalty when his cross struck the hand of Matteo Ruggeri.

Without him, creativity was in short supply. That was even more evident when Alexander-Arnold faded. His match fitness is still in the early stages of being built — as that went so too did Liverpool’s threat.

Alexander-Arnold impressed against Atalanta but Liverpool faded as he did (Marco Luzzani/Getty Images)

The positive first half was replaced in the second half by an almost non-existent attack. Fittingly it was an Alexander-Arnold pass lobbed through to Gakpo which created the best opening — but Liverpool dallied and Mohamed Salah’s eventual shot was saved. The flag went up anyway with the 31-year-old comfortable offside. There was no siege, just a whimper.

“The biggest problem for us in the second half was we couldn’t keep that tempo,” said Jurgen Klopp. “Trent Alexander-Arnold, a player we didn’t have for a while, as long as he was fresh, together with Macca (Mac Allister) he set the tempo, the rhythm, the direction of the game.

“He was running out of gas and Macca had to go through this game, which was crazy. The way he did it was absolutely insane. If we could have kept this kind of tempo — we can do that usually — tonight was not that easy.”

Mac Allister is at the other end of the spectrum. Due to injuries to others, he has been overplayed and tiredness appears to be creeping into his game after an incredible run of form.

Alexander-Arnold stood up for as long as he could, but too many other difference-makers were sat down with him by full-time.

It had all the hallmarks of a final great European comeback under Klopp. The early goal, a penalty dispatched by Salah and momentum with Atalanta on the back foot.

Yet when Salah was sent through on goal via Cody Gakpo’s clipped pass later in the first half, he failed to double his and Liverpool’s goal tally.

At his best, the Egypt international would have raised his arms before the ball hit the back of the net. It had sat up perfectly. Goalkeeper Juan Musso was statuesque and in no man’s land. All Salah had to do was loft it over him and into the empty goal. He got it horribly wrong. The shot drifted harmlessly wide.

It was a snapshot of Salah since his return from injury last month. He has struggled for rhythm in his general play, and either his finishing has suffered as a result or the finishing has had the knock-on effect.

His form is a genuine concern, and while the blame does not solely rest with him, he is and has been Liverpool’s go-to goalscorer. It was telling that Salah was taken off when goals were needed.

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Salah was taken off when Liverpool needed a goal (Isabella Bonotto/AFP via Getty Images)

“I’m not particularly concerned,” Klopp said. “That’s what strikers do. That’s what happens to strikers. That’s how it is. We have to go through this, he has to go through this — he is the most experienced one. That is pretty much all.

“It’s not that Mo didn’t miss chances before in his life, that’s part of the game. The penalty was super convincing. It was a super penalty and then the next chance obviously, it was unlucky but it’s not the first time that he missed a chance like that. I won’t make a bigger story out of it.”

It raises bigger, longer-term questions but answers to those must wait — Salah has to step up for the final six games of the campaign. Taking him off may have been to save his legs, but it is not just tiredness hindering him.

Klopp reverted to the midfield trio which had settled into his best selection earlier in the season — Mac Allister in the No 6 role with Dominik Szoboszlai and Curtis Jones ahead of him.

As Szoboszlai jogged off alongside Salah, it was another performance where the Hungary international again looked a different player to the one who took the Premier League by storm in the opening months.

The Steven Gerrard comparisons were a huge compliment but the 23-year-old’s energy, exuberance and influence on games have drifted. He too has suffered injury problems since the start of 2024, but there were already signs that his impact on games was not as prominent as they were in earlier games.

The ball-progressing creator of the midfield three, and extra attacking man from deep is not carrying the same conviction. His pass map highlights how few of the passes he attempted were either in the final third or played forwards

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Where everything seemed so effortless, now it looks hard. Earlier in the season, Szoboszlai could glide around the pitch with the energy of two players — a physical freak of nature. Now he, like Salah, looks human and through a combination of form, fitness and confidence his impact on games has decreased.

Klopp was the first over to Liverpool travelling supporters, crammed into the corner of the Gewiss stadium. He doffed his cap and tapped the club badge with his hand. His final European match was a victory but there will be no glorious goodbye in Dublin to end a final adventure.

Liverpool have only one goal remaining. They have to win their final six league games and hope both Manchester City and Arsenal slip up.

For Klopp’s side to do their part, they need their big players to perform — Alexander-Arnold showed his teammates the way forward, but they need to follow his example.

(Top photo: Alessio Morgese/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

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