Liverpool went into their final group stage game knowing that a win would see them progress as group winners, regardless of results elsewhere. This feat has eluded the team since 2008, a staggering nine years ago – it was imperative, therefore, that Klopp’s men got the job done. They delivered in the most emphatic way imaginable: Spartak became the second team to be hit for seven during the campaign, and Liverpool broke the record for the most goals scored by an English team in a Champions League group stage on their way to booking a place in the last sixteen.
After a few weeks of rotation here and there in the front line, Klopp finally treated the fans to the full compliment of attacking talent. The quadruple threat of Salah, Mane, Firmimo and Coutinho would be enough to blow away better teams than Spartak; the Russians were helpless in the face of the onslaught. Philippe Coutinho opened the scoring after just four minutes. Mo Salah’s movement immediately caused panic at the back, and he was hauled down while trying to reach Coutinho’s pass. The Brazilian stepped up to take the spot kick, and converted it with supreme coolness – replays revealed that he didn’t look at the ball once during his run-up, keeping his eyes on the goal and sending the goalkeeper the wrong way. There was no looking back in the game either. Liverpool were playing very nicely, undoubtedly aided by the huge pockets of space left open by the Spartak defence – at times it was like an exhibition game, as the attackers put on a show for the Anfield faithful. The second goal came after fifteen minutes; a delightful passage of passing brought the ball to the feet of Firmino, who calmly and selflessly shifted the ball across goal for Coutinho to slot home his second of the night. A third was added just minutes later. Firmino took this one for himself, slamming the ball emphatically home with the outside of his right boot after Mane’s effort fell to him in the box.
Mane had chances of his own in the first half, but it was not until the start of the second period that he managed to get his name on the scoresheet. He did so in supreme style, scoring arguably the pick of the bunch. Milner, who had come on for an injured Alberto Moreno, delivered a lovely cross to the far post which was met sumptuously by Mane – he volleyed it venomously past the Spartak keeper, who was once again a helpless observer. Three minutes later, it was five. Philippe Coutinho jinked round multiple defenders with ease before curling one goalwards; it found its way in via a big deflection, making Coutinho only the third ever Liverpool player to net a Champions League hattrick. It was a truly remarkable performance, particularly on the back of his goal and three assists at the weekend: it is not difficult to see why FSG were so desperate to keep him at Anfield over the summer. Fresh rumours are inevitably beginning to heat up as January approaches – at the moment, however, it is difficult to see why Coutinho would be particularly eager to leave the hottest attack in Europe.
This is particularly true given his strong relationship with the other forwards: Mane, Salah and compatriot Firmino. There appears to be a genuine camaraderie there; each wants the others to succeed, and all of them share the common goal of bringing success for the team. None of them seem too fussed about who gets on the scoresheet, just as long as the goals come; the resulting linkup is astounding at times, and has led to some truly beautiful attacking football. The talent does not stop at these four players, either. Firmino was replaced by Sturridge with about twenty minutes to play, and the Englishman made his mark almost instantly. He worked some space for himself on the right-hand side of the pitch, before squaring the ball for Mane – the Senegalese international showed great inventiveness to turn the ball home from an awkward position, and Liverpool had six.
The referee seemingly felt sorry for Spartak Moscow at this point, and so denied Sturridge a second assist in as many minutes by refusing to award a fairly clear penalty after the striker nicked in ahead of the keeper. This was not enough to stop the rampant reds. Salah ended his one-game drought five minutes from time – Milner delivered another nice delivery from the left, and the Egyptian showed great composure in the box to buy some time before firing it in. In another act of kindness, the officials added no time on at the end; it was only this that stopped Liverpool equalling or bettering their own record of eight Champions League goals in a single game.
The performance will undoubtedly give Liverpool great confidence going into the draw on Monday – their first-place finish leaves them best-placed to avoid a tough draw, but they will feel as though they can beat anyone in their current attacking form. With the likes of Real Madrid, Juventus and Bayern Munich all possible opponents, this may well be put to the test; the constant question mark is of course the defence, but going forward, at least, there is no reason not to believe that Liverpool can’t go toe-to-toe with Europe’s elite. Before they do this, however, there is a derby to look forward to: Sam Allardyce cannot be relishing the prospect of that fixture right now. Teams are rightly scared of us again: regardless of what pundits might have been saying earlier in the season, Liverpool are undoubtedly a team moving in the right direction.
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