Liverpool's unfashionable midfield the support act for Mohamed Salah

Mohamed Salah was the star attraction against Roma, but the Egyptian had an impressive supporting cast. (Reuters)
Updated 25 April 2018
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Liverpool's unfashionable midfield the support act for Mohamed Salah

  • Egyptian now has a remarkable 43 goals for the season
  • But he was backed up by a combative midfield trio of Henderson, Milner and Wijnaldum

LIVERPOOL: When Liverpool was last making a charge at the Champions League title, its midfield had legitimate claims at being among the best in the world.
It was 2008 and Steven Gerrard, Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano made up an engine room that had a bit of everything: Energy, vision, work rate, goals.
Fast forward a decade and Liverpool is back among Europe's elite with a rather more unfashionable and functional central midfield that is proving to be just as effective.
Mohamed Salah naturally hogged the headlines after scoring two goals and setting up two others in Liverpool's 5-2 win over Roma in the first leg of the semifinals on Tuesday. That made it 43 goals for the season for the Egypt winger, who has fast become the darling of Anfield and an icon back in his native country.
Yet Salah couldn't operate so effectively, and with such freedom, without the tireless and unselfish work of Liverpool's central-midfield three, which against Roma mainly comprised of Jordan Henderson, James Milner and Georginio Wijnaldum.
That's the same Henderson who is often castigated and held up as a poster boy for the England national team's midfield woes in recent years. The same Milner who is now retired from England duty and has a parody Twitter account — "Boring James Milner" — named after him with 612,000 followers. The same Wijnaldum who was relegated from the Premier League with Newcastle two years ago.
This trio dominated the game against Roma, getting the better of Daniele De Rossi, Radja Nainggolan and Kevin Strootman — arguably more illustrious counterparts — and laying the platform for Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane to run amok further forward.
"We didn't give any space away," Klopp said, with a nod to his midfield. "We controlled the game in a very nice football way."
That was often an accusation against Klopp, that his midfield couldn't control games because the team was too gung-ho in attack, leaving Liverpool's defense exposed.
This time last year, Philippe Coutinho was playing as a deep-lying central midfielder. The Brazil playmaker played lethal through-balls and scored some high-quality goals from long range, but didn't have the discipline and awareness of a natural center midfielder.
Coutinho's departure to Barcelona in January robbed Liverpool of one of world soccer's most creative minds but has invariably helped to shore up Klopp's midfield. The midfield now consists of three of Emre Can, Henderson, Wijnaldum, Milner and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain — all hard-working players who chip in with goals.
It's no surprise that Liverpool's defensive record has vastly improved as a result, especially with Virgil van Dijk a commanding presence at center back since joining for $99 million — a world-record fee for a defender — in January.
Milner, meanwhile, has emerged as something of a cult hero at Anfield — and an unlikely record-breaker in the Champions League.
When the 32-year-old Milner sent in a corner that was headed in by Firmino for Liverpool's fifth goal against Roma, he became the first player to have nine assists in a single Champions League campaign.
That sums him up, really, a player content to leave the glory to others. Milner was appreciated at Manchester City for his selflessness and versatility but he has blossomed further since his 2015 move to Liverpool, where he now is an out-and-out central midfielder after filling in at left back for most of last season.
Henderson is fully fit and is developing into a leader, albeit a more unassuming and less dynamic one than previous captain Gerrard. Wijnaldum has a knack of scoring big goals at Anfield and rarely lets Liverpool down, as shown against Roma when he replaced the injured Oxlade-Chamberlain in the 18th minute and slotted straight into his role.
With Oxlade-Chamberlain and Adam Lallana potentially out for the rest of the season and Can also injured, Klopp is short of midfield cover outside of Henderson, Milner and Wijnaldum for Liverpool's final three Premier League games and, potentially, two more games in the Champions League.
Keeping Salah, Mane and Firmino fit has always been Klopp's priority this season. He'll be wrapping his three remaining senior midfielders in cotton for the final month now, too.


Saudi Arabia out of Asian Cup after 1-0 defeat to Japan

Updated 36 min 42 sec ago
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Saudi Arabia out of Asian Cup after 1-0 defeat to Japan

  • Tomiyasu goal enough to give Japan place in the quarterfinals.
  • Green Falcons struggled to break down a determined Japan side.

LONDON: Takehiro Tomiyasu's lone strike sent Saudi Arabia crashing out of the Asian Cup as Japan beat the three-time champions 1-0 to reach the quarterfinals.
Tomiyasu's first-half header was enough to seal it for Japan as the last-16 game between two teams with seven titles between them failed to live up to its billing.
Japan, record four-time winners of the Asian Cup, march on to a quarter-final with Southeast Asian champions Vietnam despite not yet hitting top form at the tournament.
Saudi Arabia were in the ascendancy early on but it was Japan who snatched the advantage with a straightforward goal from a set piece on 20 minutes.
From a corner, Belgium-based defender Tomiyasu climbed above his marker and nodded firmly into the bottom corner for his first of the tournament.
The Saudis twice came close with headers as they strived for a way back, and Hatan Bahbri curled one just off-target as he went for the top corner.
Yoshinori Muto's shot was blocked on the hour-mark but most of the chances were falling to Saudi Arabia, who will rue some wasteful finishing.
Bahbri's shot from outside the box crept narrowly wide and Ali Al-Bulaihi powered a strong header over when the ball was knocked back into the area after a free-kick.
But despite a late flurry it remained another goalless outing for the Saudis, who haven't hit the net since scoring six goals in their first two group games.