Liverpool controversially denied late winner by VAR in draw with Midtjylland
It was the dead-rubber that confirmed VAR is a deadweight, a burden on the sport it is supposed to protect. “I used to be one of the people who said VAR is a good idea,” Jürgen Klopp said. “I’m really not sure I would say that again to be honest.”
The Liverpool manager signalled his disillusionment after his team ended their Champions League group procession with a highly eventful draw at Midtjylland. His dissent against VAR was understandable. It will be welcome too, should other prominent voices press for a desperately needed review of a system that is eating away at the spirit and enjoyment of the game.
There were nine minutes of time added-on in Denmark as a consequence of three lengthy VAR reviews that, in order, awarded Midtjylland a penalty after an initial offside decision, denied the hosts a second for offside, and disallowed an 89th-minute goal by Liverpool’s Takumi Minamino for an apparent handball by Sadio Mané. Mané’s handball was not clear and obvious and Minamino was initially, and incorrectly, adjudged offside before the VAR forensic team went to work and disallowed a goal that would have given Liverpool a club-record 15 points in a group.
Klopp, more in resignation than anger, said: “It just took too long. I think in the end, I didn’t see it back, but the decisions were right but it was so difficult to make, it took three or four minutes and it was cold for the boys. It is really hard and I could hear people saying ‘Oh my God’. It took really long and it was really cold, which doesn’t heIp.”
He went with a surprisingly strong side in Denmark – considering his regular complaints about the punishing fixture schedule – and was repaid inside a minute as Mohamed Salah struck to become Liverpool’s record goal-scorer in the Champions League with 22. Salah and Trent Alexander-Arnold were more in need of game time than rest, their manager reasoned, having been sidelined recently by Covid-19 and injury respectively.
Alexander-Arnold’s first start for a month was enhanced by wearing the captain’s armband for the first time in his remarkable Liverpool career. Fabinho and Diogo Jota were other familiar faces in the starting lineup although, at 24 years and 26 days, it was still the youngest Liverpool have fielded in a Champions League game.
The quickest goal in the club’s Champions League history followed after merely 55 seconds. The Midtjylland midfielder Alexander Scholz provided the assist with a wayward back-pass intended for his captain, central defender Erik Sviatchenko. He released the ever-alert Salah on goal instead. The forward never appeared to have the ball under control as he bore down on Jesper Hansen but, as the goalkeeper and defender Dion Cools closed in, he poked a shot that trickled through Hansen’s legs and over the line.
Leighton Clarkson, the 19-year-old from Clitheroe, was given his Champions League debut in central midfield and made a confident start to his Liverpool career, albeit with the occasional lapse that escaped punishment. He helped create a good early chance for Jota with a fine ball to Minamino. Jesper Hansen, the hosts’ goalkeeper, saved well from the Portugal international while Divock Origi squandered a good chance to double Liverpool’s advantage from Salah’s first time pass.
Not that Liverpool dominated. Far from it. As at Ajax, Fabinho produced an excellent goalline clearance to prevent Sory Kaba equalising with a back post header that sailed beyond Caoimhin Kelleher. The Brazilian was replaced at half-time by Billy Koumetio who, at 18 years and 25 days, became the youngest player to appear in the Champions League for Liverpool. The switch left the visitors with a young, inexperienced central defence and the Danish champions immediately capitalised.
Evander hit the crossbar, Kaba headed a good chance wide and then VAR made its first intervention. Anders Dreyer was ruled offside when he latched on to a ball over the Liverpool defence before being tripped by the on-rushing Kelleher. The French referee Francois Letexier was advised to review the contact – but not the offside – on the pitchside monitor and overturned the original decision to point to the spot.
Kelleher went the right way but was beaten by Scholz’s powerful and precise penalty.
Scholz thought he had given Midtjylland the lead from a tight angle but, after another lengthy VAR review, the effort was disallowed for offside. Kelleher produced a smart stop to push away Sviatchenko’s header late on and Jordan Henderson, on as a second-half substitute, preventeddenied Evander finishing a counterattack with a superb last-ditch tackle inside the area.
It was Henderson’s cross that Mané inadvertently headed into Minamino’s path off Cools. The Japan international converted from close range, saw his celebrations cut short by an offside flag and then waited an age for VAR to decide the goal should be disallowed for a touch off Mané’s hand. Klopp looked on bewildered, as well he might.