The Champions League provided much-needed respite for Liverpool on Wednesday night as Jurgen Klopp’s men cast aside their Premier League woes to book their spot in the quarter-finals of Europe’s premier competition.
The Reds’ display belied their continually-fading confidence in domestic matches as they created chance after chance against an admittedly open team defensively – only to squander them in both halves.
Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and Diogo Jota might all have been on the scoresheet by half-time against Leipzig on another night while chances also went to waste after the break.
But ultimately it didn’t matter because Mohamed Salah finally made it 1-0 on the night and 3-0 on aggregate with 20 minutes to go and Sadio Mane doubled that advantage, killing the tie, just minutes later.
That ensured Liverpool will be in the pot when the draw for the last eight of the Champions League is conducted a week on Friday (March 19).
The quarter-finals will not take place until April 6/7 and April 13/14 and so Liverpool now have the chance to try and rediscover some self-belief in the league to be able to go into those games feeling as though they are once more a team to be feared.
And the clash with Leipzig hinted at what may be the answer to the Reds getting back to form in the league and rising up the table to at least end the season strongly, and also even more importantly how they can put up a genuine challenge in Europe.
The return of Fabinho to his favoured holding role gave Liverpool far more structure and a much steelier spine with the Brazilian making his first start in his best position since the Merseyside derby draw with Everton on October 17.
Ever since, the former Monaco man has been deployed in central defence, playing alongside the likes of Joel Matip, the on-loan Ozan Kabak, Nat Phillips and Jordan Henderson in a season where Liverpool have been unable to name a consistent centre-half pairing.
By contrast the 27-year-old played all of his 39 matches in the title-winning 2019-20 campaign in defensive midfield and would have racked up near 50 appearances there if not for an ankle problem midway through the season.
Muscle injuries have struck again this term but this was the first time that Klopp has started a match with Fabinho back in the role where over the past two seasons he has made it clear he is one of the best in the world.
The South American enforcer offers far greater defensive security with Leipzig looking to Liverpool’s right-hand side, where Trent Alexander-Arnold was deployed, to get at the Premier League champions and having little success through the centre.
That was thanks to the safety blanket offered by Fabinho, referred to by Klopp’s assistant manager Pepijn Lijnders as a lighthouse two years ago.
The Dutchman told ESPN back in January 2019: “Inside the ‘organised chaos’ that we want, that we like, he is like a lighthouse, he controls it and for me, you can still have the style of the gaffer and how we want to identify ourselves.
“But with a player like Fabinho in the middle, the ball always goes out round. That’s how they say it in Portuguese.
“His timing, his vision, his calmness, it gives another dimension to our midfield player.”
Virgil van Dijk similarly joked of Fabinho after a 3-0 win over Burnley in August 2019: “He’s like Inspector Gadget, he’s everywhere. He’s got these legs that go everywhere.”
The midfielder has performed largely well in defence this season but having him slightly further forward, where he can put out fires and break up the play, makes Liverpool a much stronger side.
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It was no surprise that Thiago Alcantara produced his best Liverpool performance for several months with Fabinho next to him rather than in the final defensive line.
In attack Liverpool benefitted here from how much open space Leipzig afforded to them, just as they did in the first leg, but several of their attacks also came from Fabinho winning back the ball and setting his side on their way.
And defensively, having proven vulnerable on the counter especially in recent games at Anfield during their six-match league losing streak, they are also significantly improved with Fabinho operating as the No 6 and using that long frame of his to get across the pitch and thwart opposing attacks.
Alisson had only one real save to make in the first half, despite the fact Leipzig came into the game 2-0 down on aggregate, and wasn’t too busy in the second half either in Budapest although Alexander Sorloth headed against the crossbar.
Fabinho played a key role in that. His defensive numbers here read three tackles (behind only Thiago for Liverpool), two interceptions (behind only Salah for Liverpool), two clearances and two fouls, one of which was an intelligent one to check the momentum of a Leipzig attack.
Klopp must be praying that Phillips, who threw his head at absolutely every ball against Leipzig in another dependable display, and loanee Kabak can stay fit to avoid having to pull Fabinho back into defence once more.
Quite simply, having Fabinho in defensive midfield massively strengthens their chances of finishing as high as possible in the league – though a top-four finish now seems beyond them – and more crucially of winning the Champions League to keep Liverpool in the competition next season.