John Gibbons: Midfield and defence have been key to LFC’s improvement

The man from The Anfield Wrap reports from Rome - or rather, Benidorm - after a thrilling semi-final...


This morning we celebrated qualifying for the Champions League Final like any sensible people would. By flying straight to Benidorm after zero sleep.

Actually, in all honesty, we have come for a stag do that was planned months ago, before even Liverpool fans really believed we would be in this position. When you haven’t even qualified for the competition most years in the last ten, you aren’t really planning around semi-finals.

So how did this team confound all expectations and leave pundits furiously backtracking on Autumn predictions and fans furiously cancelling and re-booking flights to the Costa Blanca?

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Of course the three forwards are the star attraction. It was great to see Sadio Mane take centre stage with a man of the match performance last night. So often this season he has understandably lived in the shadows of the excellence of Firmino and the ridiculousness of Salah.

But they are a front three that deserve to be spoken of together, not least because it is their understanding, switching and enjoyment of playing with each other that raises each one to another level.

Behind them, however, there has been a quiet revolution across the season that has been spoken of much less outside Merseyside.

The midfield, a source of frustration for lots of Liverpool fans since, if we are honest, the Rafa Benitez era, has developed a much greater balance of steel, guile and creativity. Much of this is due to the rapid development of the unfortunate Alex Oxlade Chamberlain, who looked a new man from February onwards with big performances and even bigger goals before his heart-breaking, season-ending injury, and the outstanding form of James Milner in 2018.

I’ll be honest: I believed James Milner as a central midfielder was done after the Europa League final in 2016. Following that he had a surprisingly successful season at left back, but when it was announced in the summer he was being considered as a midfielder again, I thought that was largely that. But, after a quiet start to the season, he’s been a revelation in the last few months and now holds the record for Champions League assists in a season, as well as own goals scored by the face. Gareth Southgate must surely be tempted to try and persuade him to go to Russia in the summer.

On current form he is England’s best midfielder.

It might not have looked it at times last night, but Liverpool’s defence is much improved too. Much of this is rightly credited to the imperious Virgil Van Djik, signed in January, but he’s actually playing in a completely different back five to the one who you would have expected in September. Karius, Alexander-Arnold and especially Roberston have come in and performed way beyond expectations.

All of this contributes to a seriously good football team who are not in the final of the Champions League due to chance or good fortune. They have a great chance of lifting the trophy in Kiev too. Even if those of us booking holidays hadn’t counted on it.

Now excuse me. The San Miguel isn’t going to drink itself.

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What do you think?