The team that finished fourth in the Premier League looked on a different plane to their Bundesliga equivalents on Wednesday. But Liverpool boss Jürgen Klopp saw encouraging signs for Hoffenheim.
The longest unbeaten run in Europe's top five leagues, the incredible turnaround under one of Europe's most promising coaches and the highest finish in their club's history all felt like they meant very little to Hoffenheim's dejected players and staff as they left the Anfield pitch on Wednesday night.
"It hurts, because we have lost a game that meant so much," said head coach Julian Nagelsmann after he saw his side ruthlessly dismantled in a blistering three-goal opening 20 minutes from Liverpool, before eventually losing 4-2 on the night and 6-3 on aggregate.
"We didn't set ourselves up well enough and our plan went of the window," he continued. "We missed the chance to put on a performance like those we showed last year to give us this opportunity. It was a rare sloppy performance from us."
Quicker heads and feet
In truth, even before the first-leg defeat at home, this was always going to be a mammoth task for a club who have skipped a development stage under the 30-year-old. Even without Barcelona target Coutinho, Liverpool's front three of Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and outstanding Hoffenheim alumnus Roberto Firmino were too quick of thought and foot for the German side to cope. Hardly surprising, given the trio cost Liverpool a reported 120 million euros ($142 million), or three times Hoffenheim's outlay on their first 11.
More than the loss, it's the manner of the defeat that will sting. As on-loan Bayern Munich winger Serge Gnabry told DW after the game, Hoffenheim saved probably their worst 20 minutes of football since Nagelsmann took over last February for arguably their most important game.
"Liverpool were pressing us hard. It looked like they wanted it more in the first few minutes and obviously they scored the three goals early on and it was difficult for us," he said. "I don't think we had to be more attacking [after the first leg result] today. We try to play football every time but Liverpool are a team that plays on the counter and every time we lost the ball there was massive space and they used it well."
That space could, at least in part, be ascribed to Nagelsmann's team selection. Relentlessly positive in everything he does, the coach may have played into Liverpool's hands with a two-man midfield of the naturally attacking Kerem Demirbay and the youngster Dennis Geiger. The pair were overrun by Jordan Henderson, Georginio Wijnaldum and Emre Can, who bagged a rare brace. The Liverpool trio were given far too much time to pick out the intelligent runs of Mane and Salah while Firmino linked the play excellently. Liverpool's attacking style brings out their strengths.
But even in the darkest hour, Nagelsmann had the presence of mind and courage of conviction to make a change, throwing on striker Mark Uth for struggling center back Havard Nordveidt. It may seem an obvious move at 3-0 down but after 25 minutes against a team as rampant as Liverpool were, it took guts - it was move that could havve heaped further embarrassment on the visitors.
It proved to be worth the risk, Uth pulling one back almost instantly as Hoffenheim started to test Liverpool's notoriously leaky backline. It was never likely to be enough, and Liverpool's class inevitably told, but there were further encouraging signs even in such a heavy defeat.
"It was hard after 20 minutes because they never stopped running and playing football, so you have to give them so much respect for that," admitted Liverpool's delighted bench boss Jürgen Klopp. They wanted to put on a good show and showed great spirit."
Chasm in class
The traveling fans certainly responded, outsinging Liverpool's famous Kop in the closing stages of a raucous night at one of Europe's most atmospheric stadiums. But like the other consolations they can take from the defeat, that will seem like cold comfort for Hoffenheim right now.
There may be a chasm in class but it's hard to escape the feeling these are both sides on the up. Liverpool look irrestible at times in attack, while Hoffenheim have shown enough in the last 18 months, and in patches of their maiden European tie, to suggest their early capitulation on Wednesday will not mar the rest of their season.
"We now look to the Bundesliga and Friday's Europa League draw," Nagelsmann said. "We saw today that we lack that little bit of quality to reach the Champions League. But we have grown a lot following these two games."
They may have taken a step backwards on Wednesday but Hoffenheim have shown enough to suggest they are still capable of making giant strides forward.