By 90Min
November 09, 2018

Liverpool's high octane sprint to the Champions League final was only a few months ago, but it truly feels like a lifetime. That's not because things have gone downhill since, like many would, absurdly, suggest. In a lot of ways, circumstances have actually improved. 

Last season, the thing that killed the Reds over the course of the season was their lack of ability to grind out victories when they weren't at their best. The Belgrade Incident™ aside - we'll get to that later -  their ability to do just that has been their saving grace so far.

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They've improved at the back a thousand times over since this time a year ago, and as a result, they are once again genuine title contenders. Their tally of five goals conceded in the Premier League is bettered only by Manchester City, and is better than anyone else by a margin of three.

We talk so much about the importance of being hard to beat, though, and you get the sense that this is something Klopp has instilled into the players over the summer at the expense of almost anything else. We almost took it without saying at times that if Liverpool tightened up at the back, they'd go on to dominate European football for the next several decades and beyond. 

But Belgrade showed us, in brutal, clear terms, that we've got ahead of ourselves just a tad on that one. It was unthinkable that a Liverpool side would struggle to score goals, but that's what hurt them in Belgrade. And if we're being honest, it's something they're lucky hasn't hurt them in the Premier League. 

Such is the quality of Pep Guardiola's Manchester City, that no-one in the league can really evaluate themselves based on their performances against them. Yet Liverpool, with the form of Mo Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino, took them apart on three occasions last campaign. 

It's not that a point at home to the Champions is a bad result, but the Reds found themselves relying on a Riyad Mahrez penalty miss to secure that, as they could not find a way through to score themselves.

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More recently, against Arsenal, Liverpool found themselves in the kind of game which would have seen them previously run riot. It was open, fast paced, end-to-end. Yet, a solitary James Milner goal was cancelled out by a late Alexandre Lacazette equaliser.

They're closer, now, to being in contention for trophies, than they were last season - that's not up for debate, and shouldn't be detracted from. But on the evidence of previous games, there was always going to come a time when they were caught out relying too heavily on their resolve, and that alone wouldn't be enough. That time came on Tuesday night.

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Liverpool travelled to Red Star sitting top of a Champions League group featuring Napoli and PSG at the half-way stage of the group fixtures. The feeling was that a win was in the bag before the plane was even boarded. After a win and a defeat against PSG and Napoli respectively, the Reds, surely, had the respite of successive wins to look forward to against the Serbs. 

The Anfield leg certainly was what you'd have expected. Belgrade looked far from poor, but Liverpool dismantles them without getting out of first gear nontheless. 4-0. Next, please.

It's precisely that attitude, though, that was their undoing away from home. A double from Milan Pavkov, the second coming just before the half hour mark, caught the Reds on their heels, and they - Liverpool, whose front three scored more Champions League goals than any other attacking trio in a given season  - did not have the firepower to come back at Serbia's Red Star Belgrade with anything substantial. Their previously admirable resolve did not save them on this occasion.

It's times like this that Liverpool absolutely must rediscover at least some of their famed attacking prowess. It's not that we haven't seen signs of it so far - their Egyptian King has seven goals and four assists in 16 appearances, and Sadio Mane's total of six Premier League goals is bettered only by the seven scored by Eden Hazard, Sergio Aguero and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. 

As a team, though, the Reds have scored just 21 in the league - 12 fewer than City.

But look, it's easy to overreact to a horrific result. Of course, you'd accept not being the most exciting team going forward if it means you're in contention for trophies you previously wouldn't have been able to get near. 

We can look at what is an embarrassing result by Liverpool's standards, and hope they use it as a much-needed wake-up call, without going over the top with our criticism, and while still remaining positive about the team's chances. 

There's every chance Belgrade was just a blip in what has been an impressive season so far. Blips don't come from nothing, but if you nip them in the bud quick enough - which Jurgen Klopp was presumably trying to do with the 'crunch' talks he reportedly held during the week - then they usually don't manifest themselves much further.

Srdjan Stevanovic/GettyImages

A middle ground needs to be found between this season and last, but it's easy to forget that it wasn't until the Christmas period that Liverpool really found their feet last season, and the headlines started being made. 

Two points off top and sitting second in their Champions League group, yet the best, possibly, is still to come. 

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