p1dk0e4mcm3op1vg41jqp1t91mc6l.jpg

Roberto Firmino is finally getting the acknowledgement and praise he deserves at Liverpool

People talk about Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah, but Firmino is just as vital

Liverpool were behind at half time in Istanbul. It was not quite as big an occasion as the last time that happened, nor was Chelsea’s lead so large.

But they still needed someone to change the game if they were to lay their hands on the European Super Cup.

Jurgen Klopp looked to his bench and the choice was clear. He’d rested Roberto Firmino, his first choice No.9, but without him, the attack wasn’t flowing.

The way Liverpool work the ball into dangerous positions is usually so seamless that when it is not happening for them, it is a jarring sight.

Firmino came on and within moments all seemed well again. The 75 minutes of football that followed were an incredible testament to his ability and a powerful indication of how central he will be to this Liverpool team as they push for a first English top-flight title in 30 years.

First, he set up Sadio Mane, nipping in behind Cesar Azpilicueta and onto Fabinho’s through ball, which he calmly and selflessly poked into the path of the Senegal international with the studs of his right boot.

Then, in stoppage time, he repeated the trick, running wide into the channel between centre half and right back to receive Mane’s through ball. He looked up, pulled it back and Mane was there again to put Liverpool into the lead.

Chelsea, of course, went on to equalise before Liverpool won on penalties, but without Firmino’s intervention, the game could well have ended with Chelsea causing what would, given the circumstances, have been quite the upset.

Klopp likes to talk about transformative signings, and there have been a few since he arrived. Mane and Mohamed Salah were bought in consecutive summers and Virgil van Dijk and Alisson arrived within seven months of each in 2018. All have proved perfect complements to the German manager’s system.

Sadio Mane in action

Firmino, on the other hand, was already at the club when the ex-Borussia Dortmund boss arrived to take the reins from Brendan Rodgers. Yet it sometimes feels as if the Brazilian was not just signed with Klopp’s playing style in mind, but purposely created in a laboratory to satisfy its every need.

As Andy Robertson said after Liverpool beat Burnley 3-0 to maintain their two-point lead at the top of the table, “With his work rate, his technique, his goals and his all-round play, I don’t think there’s anyone like him. We’d be lost without him. He’s world class.

“He does everything, and that’s the beauty of Bobby. He can do it all. He’s our first line of defence, and I’ve not seen anybody better at doing that.”

Initially deployed as a No.10 behind Daniel Sturridge in a 4-2-3-1, the Brazilian has flourished since being moved into the centre-forward position in the summer of 2016.

Yet in the past two seasons, his contribution, whilst always noted, has been secondary news to the explosive goalscoring feats of first Salah and then Mane.

Firmino, for his part, has always seemed fine with that. As a footballer, he is selfless and enormously hard-working. And as a person, he seems painfully shy.

At his home Copa America this June and July in Brazil, as his teammates stopped for interviews in the mixed zone, he would hurry through with just a flash of his pearly whites to reporters desperate for a few words.

I commented on the fact to a colleague who was born and raised in the same city as Firmino – Maceio, on Brazil’s north-east coast – and he explained that his aversion to interviews and publicity is a result of a difficult upbringing.

Roberto Firmino in action

One of Firmino’s old school teachers, interviewed after he had made the Selecao squad for the first time, remembered how he had come in one Monday morning and said that the electricity had been cut off in his house all weekend. When she asked what had happened to the food in the fridge, he replied that there was none.

Even after moving to the south of Brazil to play in Figueirense’s academy, he would rarely speak, apparently embarrassed to reveal his north-east accent. On trips to shopping malls with teammates, he would ask them to talk to shop attendants so that he did not have to.

That reticence perhaps explains why his contribution has, in the past, been overlooked to some degree.

At the 2018 World Cup, he could not break into the first team for Brazil despite coming off the back of an amazing season and Gabriel Jesus not being able to buy a goal.

And, as mentioned, there was the intense focus on his fellow Liverpool forwards in the British media.
Yet finally, now, people have started to notice that it is he who makes everything tick.

Tite backed Firmino as his first-choice No.9 throughout the year leading up to Copa America, and even changed the way the team played to suit him, which divided opinions in his homeland.

But the 27-year-old answered any questions that hung over his head with his performances at the tournament, managing two goals and three assists as Brazil secured their first silverware in 12 years.

At the start of this season, when most expected him to be feeling the effects of his exertions in yellow and green, he has plastered himself all over the English newspaper back pages with two goals, two assists and two man-of-the-match displays in four games.

After the season of Salah and Mane’s moment in the sun, this is Bobby’s time.

Firmino is finally getting the plaudits he deserves for his unique contribution for club and country and, perhaps, is finally ready to deal with the attention that being a superstar entails.