Liverpool secure Champions League playoff first-leg win in Hoffenheim
SINSHEIM, Germany -- Three quick thoughts from Liverpool's 2-1 win over Hoffenheim in the first leg of their Champions League playoff on Tuesday.
1. Liverpool have one foot in the Champions League
In many ways, this was classic Liverpool away from home in the Champions League. It has been some time since the Merseyside club were a regular in Europe's premier club competition, but their successful era in the tournament under previous Reds manager Rafael Benitez was built on displays away from Anfield. Indeed, Liverpool's win over manager Julian Nagelsmann's promising Hoffenheim side was not pretty, but it has given them a realistic chance of reaching the group stages of the Champions League for only the third time in nine seasons.
After Reds keeper Simon Mignolet saved a penalty kick in the 11th minute, Liverpool broke the deadlock through 18-year-old Trent Alexander-Arnold's well-executed free kick in the first half. After the break Hoffenheim turned up the pressure, but Liverpool netted a second on a Hoffenheim own goal through second-half substitute James Milner's deflected cross. Hoffenheim striker Mark Uth netted late on to keep the tie alive, but Hoffenheim will need to score two at Anfield on Wednesday, Aug. 23.
Everton are the last English side to drop out at the playoff round, falling out at this stage in 2005.
Tuesday's game was Hoffenheim's first-ever Champions League match in club history, and everyone connected to the Bundesliga club made the most of it. The noise inside the Rhein-Neckar-Arena was ear-splitting when both teams were warming up, and it was evident early on that it would not be an easy night for Liverpool. Dejan Lovren escaped an appeal for a handball in the seventh minute but was then penalised for a foul on Hoffenheim's Serge Gnabry, a former Arsenal man, inside the penalty area four minutes later.
Dutch referee Bjorn Kuipers waited some time to point to the spot. When he did, Andrej Kramaric -- who was doubtful for the game with injury -- saw his poor side-footed PK effort saved by Mignolet.
After being criticised for conceding from two set pieces on the weekend, Liverpool scored from one. When Liverpool's Sadio Mane was cynically fouled by Ermin Bicakcic, Alexander-Arnold took responsibility on the resulting free kick. Hoffenheim keeper Oliver Baumann could only watch as the teenager's long-range free kick nestled into the bottom-right corner to give Liverpool the lead 10 minutes before half-time.
With Liverpool having the all-important away goal, Hoffenheim looked for a way back into the game, which left them vulnerable to the counterattack. The visitors' second goal was rather fortuitous, but a reward nonetheless for keeping their well-drilled opponents at bay. Milner, who replaced Jordan Henderson in the 63rd minute, looked to cross for Mohamed Salah but saw the pass ricochet gently off Havard Nordtveit's chest and into the top corner.
Uth's goal three minutes before time made the five minutes of injury time interesting, but Liverpool held on for a crucial win.
2. Alexander-Arnold making the right-back spot his own
With Nathaniel Clyne injured for the entire preseason, Alexander-Arnold was always going to start the season as starting right-back. But there is a feeling that No. 66 would have been first choice, regardless of Clyne's fitness.
Alexander-Arnold's ability in dead-ball situations was evident after he had multiple threatening efforts at Watford. And Hoffenheim were made to pay when the full-back netted the first goal of his Liverpool career in his first European appearance.
In front of an intimidating crowd and in a game with serious permutations, Alexander-Arnold showed no signs of being overawed. His Liverpool career is only 14 appearances old, but the teen is proving that no occasion will startle him. In truth, it should come as no surprise. He was thrown into the cauldron in his first Premier League start away at Old Trafford against Manchester United in January, and dealt well with the blistering pace of Anthony Martial.
Alexander-Arnold grew up a short distance from Melwood, Liverpool's training ground. He has said that his ultimate goal at Liverpool is to become club captain, and Clyne's injury may turn out to be the break he needed to start out on that path.
3. Mignolet vital to Liverpool in slender victory
This time last year, Mignolet was in Liverpool's starting XI only because Loris Karius was injured. Now the Belgian finds himself above the German on merit alone.
Liverpool also brought back Danny Ward from his loan spell at Huddersfield Town to form a three-way battle for the No. 1 keeper jersey this summer. Yet Mignolet fended off both Ward and Karius to maintain his place in the starting XI. The Belgium international looks more assured than ever between the sticks and has clearly improved on his weaknesses. His command of the penalty area has improved considerably, as has his side kicking, which helped relieve Liverpool from spells of Hoffenheim pressure.
In addition, his penalty-saving ability will always be welcomed by any manager. Kramaric's penalty kick was the seventh Mignolet has saved for Liverpool since joining in the summer of 2013, but it wasn't his only contribution in preserving Liverpool's lead. He was quick off his goal line to deny Gnabry moments after Liverpool scored and rebuffed Nadiem Amiri in the second half.
Mignolet's rise since the midway point of last season is another example of Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp's ability to improve players, as he has done with Adam Lallana and Emre Can.
Glenn is ESPN FC's Liverpool correspondent. You can follow him on Twitter: @GlennPrice94.