There we have it, finally. It’s taken far, far longer than it ever should have done, but Liverpool are into the last sixteen of the Champions League for the first time in nine years. It is the landmark achievement of Jürgen Klopp’s tenure so far, the clearest evidence yet of the vast progress which has been made since taking the job in October 2015.
Back then, Liverpool were a side lacking an identity and purpose; a fan base divided and without much hope for the future. Just over two years on, Liverpool have announced themselves emphatically back among Europe’s elite with a swagger. They’re a fearsome proposition which no side will want to come up against in the next round.
In truth, Liverpool made hard work of a group in which they were by far the best side and having been just seconds away from securing qualification against Sevilla, a last-minute equaliser put all the pressure on the final game against a Spartak Moscow side who came to Anfield also in desperate need of a win to have any chance of progressing.
There was simply no margin for error on the night, but Liverpool played without any signs of nerves despite the pressure, delivering one of the most remarkable European performances Anfield has witnessed for many a year. Granted, Spartak were hardly robust opposition- although the Russian champions thrashed Sevilla 5-1 and came into the game on a four-match domestic winning streak.
They were far from minnows, but such was Liverpool’s sheer brilliance that Spartak looked exactly that- amateurs against professionals. From the moment Philippe Coutinho dispatched his penalty inside five minutes, the contest was effectively over as Liverpool overwhelmed and mesmerized their opponents with a scintillating attacking display of the very highest calibre.
It should not come as a total surprise, however, as Liverpool were creating an abundance of chances earlier in the season without converting them into goals. Now it’s clicked and confidence is in abundance, that creative spark is being matched by clinical finishing- although Liverpool could quite easily have scored double figures given the opportunities carved out on this occasion.
The second goal involved all four of the imperious attacking quartet, with Sadio Mané sliding the ball into Mo Salah, who released Roberto Firmino, the Brazilian squaring for Coutinho to slide the ball into the bottom corner, first time, on his weaker foot. It’s an attacking unit with the potential to devastate virtually any defence on their day- one which very few sides in Europe can come close to matching. For all the talk of the need for a 20-goal striker, it’s not unfeasible that Liverpool could have four players reach that tally this season if they continue at the current rate.
While Liverpool’s last great attack consisted of the Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge striking duo in 2013-14, supported by a younger Coutinho and an emerging Raheem Sterling, this quartet plays with an almost telepathic understanding which makes them even greater than the considerable sum of their individually outstanding parts. The pace, technique, movement and selflessness makes it almost impossible to defend against- different threats from different angles, ruthless both on and off the ball.
The game quickly became a procession, with Firmino rifling in a third to match his goal tally from the whole of last season following an excellent driving run by Mané having latched on to a controlled pass in midfield. It was another example of a complete number nine’s performance by Firmino who is slowly but surely earning the recognition his all-round contribution deserves. Mané himself scored the goal of the game shortly after half-time with a stunning volley, executed to perfection from James Milner’s teasing cross, dispatched like a bullet into the roof of the net.
Having been Liverpool’s main man last season, Mané finds himself with three others of a similar level all regularly contributing goals and assists such that there is no longer the same degree of reliance on his presence. The burden on his shoulders has been greatly lessened and he is benefiting hugely from not having to play every minute of every game, with Klopp possessing the attacking options to rotate and keep his best players fresh for the big occasion.
Coutinho sealed his hat-trick soon after- his first in Liverpool colours, taking his tally to 51 goals for the club on a night when he confirmed his world-class status with yet another quite phenomenal display, underlining exactly why Liverpool must hold firm once again should Barcelona come calling in January. While a departure at some stage seems inevitable, the Brazilian is simply too good to be letting go half way through the season- no amount of money could account for such a great loss.
We’ve witnessed his development from a precocious but inconsistent talent who offered flashes of genius, to a player who is now scoring, assisting and dominating games on a regular basis. Aside from the lack of a trophy during his time here, he has a credible claim to being considered a Liverpool great.
Mané then helped himself to a brace, managing to scrape the ball home from a Daniel Sturridge pass, before Salah capped off the victory by adding his 18th goal of the season to ensure that all four of Liverpool’s attacking unit were on the scoresheet, continuing his own remarkable goalscoring run- his 12th in the past 11 games.
Klopp seems to have stumbled upon a 4-2-2-2 shape which gets the very best out of his supreme attacking options, while also providing better defensive balance and control in midfield, more so than the 4-3-3 of last season. With Salah stationed closer to Firmino up front, with a license to drift wide, the front two are constantly interchanging and dragging defenders all over the place, while the guile and creativity of Mané and Coutinho in behind provides another dual threat, continually linking up and slicing their way through Spartak’s helpless back line with unfathomable ease.
The solid base provided by Emre Can and Gini Wijnaldum helped Liverpool control the tempo and provide an effective shield for the back four, leaving the defence far less exposed than was the case in the earlier parts of this season. Ragnar Klavan continued his recent run of impressive form, while Dejan Lovren also deserves credit for his response since the Spurs debacle. Joe Gomez, meanwhile, again performed like a seasoned professional with maturity and confidence well beyond his years.
Liverpool have now scored three or more goals in eight of the last nine games since losing to Spurs and are also showing significant signs of defensive improvement. Upgrades must still be saught in January, as the addition of a top-class centre-half could be the difference which ensures Liverpool go far in this competition having set an all-time record for goals scored in a group stage for English teams (23).
Rarely will you ever see such a dominant and explosive performance in the Champions League and regardless of who Liverpool draw in the last sixteen, this was the clearest showing yet of a side which has hit their stride- but one which still has much, much more still to give.