In the absence of unsettled playmaker Philippe Coutinho, Liverpool turned to an 18-year-old right back making his European debut for some set-piece magic in its Champions League playoff win against Hoffenheim on Tuesday.
Trent Alexander-Arnold didn’t disappoint.
Talked up at Anfield as a potential star of the future, Alexander-Arnold curled in a free kick from 30 yards to set Liverpool on its way to a 2-1 victory over a German side making its debut in European competition.
“Our little hero,” Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp said of Alexander-Arnold, who has been at the English club since the age of 6, has played for England’s youth teams and is making his full breakthrough in the first team this season while Nathaniel Clyne is injured.
It was his first goal for the club, on his ninth start.
“The free kick is no coincidence, he’s been doing that every day in training,” said Liverpool midfielder Jordan Henderson, one of a number of senior players who are happy to hand over free kicks and corners to the teenager. “Now he’s done it on the big stage.”
Coutinho usually hogs the set pieces for Liverpool, but the Brazil international is currently not available, with the club saying he has a back injury. Coutinho put in a transfer request last week after he was the subject of a second bid from Barcelona, which Liverpool rejected before saying he was not for sale.
Liverpool — a five-time European champion — is on course to reach the group stage without its star player after Havard Nordtveit inadvertently deflected substitute James Milner’s cross from the left high into his own net to make it 2-0 in the 74th minute.
Substitute Mark Uth gave Hoffenheim a glimmer of hope going into next week’s second leg at Anfield when he chested down a long ball forward and drilled an angled shot into the corner in the 87th.
Liverpool is looking to become the fifth English team to qualify for the group stage — joining Chelsea, Tottenham, Manchester City and Europa League winner Manchester United — and return to Europe’s top competition for the first time since the 2014-15 season.
Hoffenheim is in unknown territory after reaching the Champions League playoffs courtesy of a fourth-place finish in the Bundesliga under Julian Nagelsmann, its 30-year-old coach. It was the highest-ever finish by the team from a village of around 4,000 people in southwest Germany.
This was Hoffenheim’s first loss at home in any competition since May 2016.
CSKA benefited from a comical own goal in added time to close in on a fifth consecutive appearance in the group stage.
An aimless ball forward was headed into the air by Young Boys centre back Kasim Nuhu, who compounded that clumsy touch by heading the ball for a second time, this time over goalkeeper David von Ballmoos and over the line. Van Ballmoos scrambled back and tried to claw the ball into play, but it was adjudged to have crossed the line.
Azerbaijani club Qarabag FK moved closer to its first appearance in the group stage thanks to Mahir Madatov’s goal in the 26th minute.
This is the fourth time Qarabag has made it into Champions League qualifying, though the team has never progressed beyond the third round. Copenhagen has advanced from two of its six appearances in the playoffs, in 2010 and last year.
Former Champions League quarter-finalist APOEL is within touching distance of a return to the competition after goals by Igor De Camargo and Stathis Aloneftis in the first 10 minutes.
Muris Mesanovic struck the post for Slavia, the closest the Czech visitors came to reducing the deficit.
Steaua survived the final 10 minutes with 10 men after midfielder Mihai Pintilii’s red card for two bookings.
Sporting, which has lost in both of its previous appearances in the playoffs in 2009 and 2015, struck the post through Argentina international Marcos Acuna in the first half.