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Xabi Alonso showed in real time what has gone wrong for Liverpool as Darwin Núñez contrast clear

In Europe
April 19, 2024
Darwin Núñez of Liverpool looks dejected following his side's elimination from the UEFA Europa League after the UEFA Europa League 2023/24 Quarter-Final second leg match between Atalanta and Liverpool FC at Stadio Atleti Azzurri d'Italia on April 18, 2024 in Bergamo, Italy.

Darwin Núñez and the other Liverpool substitutes failed to turn the tide for Liverpool. -Credit:Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

Even if Xabi Alonso was still in the running to replace Jürgen Klopp, all Liverpool eyes would have been trained on Bergamo tonight. But while the Reds tried and failed to stage another famous European comeback, their former midfielder was also in the dugout, navigating a trip to West Ham.

For a while, it was more or less presumed that Klopp would face off against Alonso in the Dublin final, in a fixture which may even serve as the passing of the torch. But both of those dreams are now dead, with Liverpool out of the competition and Alonso staying at Bayer Leverkusen.

Liverpool did briefly threaten to revive its hopes of advancing. Trent Alexander-Arnold’s cross was blocked with a hand inside five minutes, and Mohamed Salah stepped up to convert, giving the visitor a long time to find two goals — a far more manageable task.

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Riding a wave of momentum, Liverpool threatened to add another quickly, and Luis Díaz just couldn’t quite get on the end of a neat Cody Gakpo flick to double the lead on the night moments later. The Reds’ threat then died down a little, but they had the best of the first half, and had a golden chance to go in with a two-goal advantage when Salah was sent clean through on goal.

With the ball bouncing invitingly, Salah went to lob the onrushing goalkeeper. But he connected all wrong, shinning it well wide.

Credit to Atalanta and especially Gian Piero Gasperini, who regrouped at half-time and played their own part in changing the narrative for the second half. But for Liverpool’s part, it seemed like the belief had been sucked out.

Klopp did everything in his power to change things up. Gakpo ended the game notionally at left-back to accommodate a last roll of the dice with Jayden Danns, after Darwin Núñez and Diogo Jota had been introduced already. But rather than piling on the pressure, the goal threat seemed to diminish at the final whistle drew closer.

There was a painful contrast to what was unfolding in the other Europa League game under the watch of Alonso. Just like Liverpool, West Ham had scored early, and it only needed one more goal to force extra-time. It, too, was struggling to find it, but David Moyes was at least on the verge of finally ending Bayer Leverkusen’s unbeaten streak.

Yet for the umpteenth time this season, Alonso’s charges refused to say die. Remember, they were going through anyway, but still they found the reserves to score a late equalizer. Leverkusen are astoundingly close to an unprecedented invincible campaign across all competitions, and their comebacks simply feel inevitable at this stage.

Liverpool certainly had that quality at its peak under Klopp. The title-winning season was full of similar moments. But it also seemed to have that kind of aura earlier this season. Kick-started by Núñez’s unlikely brace against Newcastle, Liverpool got a reputation as a comeback king. Even now, Klopp boasts far more goals by substitutes than his league peers. But they have not come in recent weeks.

There was no danger of Núñez repeating his dramatic brace tonight, with the contrast striking. Jota could hardly get a kick. Even Danns, who turned the League Cup final and then scored an FA Cup brace, could barely affect things with his youthful eagerness.

More than anything else, that’s what makes it hard to be too confident in a Premier League fairytale. If it is to happen, Liverpool needs to re-find that unshakeable mentality, and it could do worse than looking to Alonso for inspiration.

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