Never in doubt.
Four changes for the Tricky Reds this evening, as Virgil, Thiago, Mané and the injured Elliott were replaced by Gomez, Henderson, Keïta and the lesser-spotted Origi. The appearance of the last-named on the team sheet raised more than a few eyebrows, as did the notion that the manager was possibly taking a true European heavyweight (one of only two clubs with more European Cups than us, let’s not forget) so lightly.
The home side started like a house on fire, with Keïta having a shot blocked and then Robbo teeing up Big Div and Jota in quick succession; both players went close. The Reds weren’t giving the visitors any time on the ball and dispossessed them regularly.
Matip had a header from a corner comfortably saved by Maignan and then Trent surged forward and tried his luck; the shot deflected off Tomori and sailed over Maignan. 1-0 to the good guys within ten minutes.
Tomori then blocked a Salah effort in the box; Robertson then shot narrowly over but Bennacer was adjudged to have had his arm in an unnatural position and a penalty was awarded. Mo had both the penalty and his follow-up saved by. Maignan. It wasn’t a great penalty, to be honest.
Matip had another header saved by the visiting ‘keeper; the Reds had had an incredible fifteen attempts on goal in the opening twenty minutes. Salah had an effort tipped over by Maignan; Keïta had a shot deflected wide; Salah was again denied by Milan’s very busy custodian of the rigging.
And then the sucker punch. Milan worked the ball nicely from Saelemaekers up to Kessié and then Rebic and the Croatian tucked it away nicely. If the equaliser came against the run of play, then the visitors’ second goal ninety seconds later was incomprehensible. Some good work by Rebic set up Leao, whose shot was blocked by Robertson but fell nicely to the diminutive Diaz, who couldn’t miss. 1-2 on the stroke of half time.
As the players trudged off for their halftime oranges, it was a complete mystery how the home side were not out of sight. After all the possession and chances for the Reds, Milan had had two shots and scored two goals. The good thing was that we had completely dominated and had a very strong bench to call upon.
The second stanza almost started with another shock; Milan had the ball in the back of the net but we were saved by the offside flag. Fortunately, we were soon level as Divock skipped past his marker and brilliantly teed up Mo, who touched it past Maignan. 2-2 on the 49-minute mark.
Trent volleyed over from the edge of the box; Origi dragged a shot wide. Keïta had another attempt saved by the goalie when he could have crossed; Robbo had a rasping drive easily saved.
Divock took a knock and was replaced by Sadio with 63 minutes on the clock; Jota was closed down by Kjaer and from the resulting corner Henderson belted one into the bottom corner when it fell to him on the edge of the area. A brilliant half-volley from the captain and it was 3-2 with twenty one minutes left to play.
Alisson had to thwart Rebic shortly afterwards; Jones replaced Jota and Thiago came on for Baby with twenty minutes left. Mané then tried a curler but missed the target.
Salah made way for Ox and the captain for Milner with six minutes to go, as Jürgen possibly started to look ahead to the weekend. Kjaer came up for a corner but his header was saved by Alisson.
As we entered five minutes of stoppage time, Ox almost teed up Mané but the Senegalese forward couldn’t quite reach it; Calabria held up Jones as we launched a late counter-attack. Diaz blazed narrowly over.
And that was that. A hard-earned three points in a game we absolutely dominated and should have killed off in the first half hour; we really do need to take more of our chances in order to prevent unnecessary palpitations.
Next up is the visit of Crystal Palace to Anfield on Saturday in a rare three o’clock kickoff. Patrick Vieira’s men are fresh from their first win of the season, a 3-0 drubbing of (an admittedly ten-man) Spurs last week and in Odsonne Edouard they possess a real threat up front. Still, Virgil should be back to keep him quiet.
MOTM: those good people at Nyetimber. I’ve been on a diet recently (getting fat working from home) so have limited my alcohol intake to weekends but decided to crack open a bottle of the 2014 Blanc de Blancs this evening to celebrate the return of Champions League football. Absolutely top stuff, easily on a par with all but the very best Champagnes.