The Warmdown: Naby Keita comes of age to inspire Reds towards Champions League last-four
(Getty Images - Julian Finney)

The Warmdown: Naby Keita comes of age to inspire Reds towards Champions League last-four

Naby Keita was the standout performer as Liverpool ensured they will take a commanding 2-0 lead for the reverse fixture in Portugal.

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Joshua Kerr

Naby Keita had become a shadow figure at Liverpool during his turbulent debut season at Anfield but finally, the £48 million signing came of age to inspire the Reds to another comfortable victory over FC Porto - who must be sick of the sight of Jurgen Klopp's troops.

Once again there was a Liverpool No.8 providing the gloss and glow in another routine win in Europe as Merseysiders were treated to the showing that made the 12 months wait for the Guinean's services all but worth it. 

Coming of age

There is no doubt that Steven Gerrard's legendary and weight bearing shirt had taking it's toll on Keita's shoulders since the former RB Leipzig midfielder kicked his first Anfield ball back in August. 

The 24-year-old became the first player to wear the famous jersey since Gerrard's departure in 2015 and worn by arguably the club's greatest ever player and it became an obsession of Keita to follow in the footsteps of his former hero from the off. 

Following a topsy-turvy battle with fitness and form, Keita has undoubtedly struggled to establish himself as a regular starter in Klopp's Premier League and Champions League challenging side. If anything, he's been a peripheral figure on both the national and continental stage.

However, 240 days after his club debut for the Reds back in August 2018, Keita finally delivered a performance to ignite his Anfield tenure.

The Kop made sure the midfielder's name rang around the ground in the closing stages as Liverpool orchestrated a rather routine victory against FC Porto to place themselves on the brink of back-to-back Champions League semi-finals as well as the prospect of a mouthwatering last-four bout against either Barcelona or Manchester United.

Keita set the tone from the off and his second strike in four days following his strike in the win at Southampton put the Reds in a commanding position after only four minutes and secured the former Bundesliga star his first goal on home turf to ensure supporters are still dreaming of another date with destiny in Madrid. 

It's crazy what goals do to confidence. Following the opening strike, Keita oozed class and was the creative spark in a midfield that was also contested by Fabinho and Jordan Henderson

Liverpool's club-captain was equally effective and influential with the Englishman operating further forward in a more vindicated role. The past two weeks have showcased that both Henderson and Keita are forces to be reckoned with in Klopp's ideal midfield trio.

Keita scored the first, whilst Henderson created the second for Roberto Firmino to ensure the hosts were in cruise control in well under half-an-hour. 

The shackles were off and the floodgates came calling. The expected demolition job didn't quite fathom its way into yet another European steamroller similarly to the visitor's 5-0 humbling in their own back-yard just 14 months ago.

Despite early domination and a ruthless edge, Klopp's men slumped in periods and even rode their luck to keep their first clean sheet in five matches as well as the advantage of no precious away goals conceded.

It almost set up the second-leg perfectly with Porto proving themselves as serious opponents despite the formality of last year. Tonight showcased why the Portuguese champions can mix it up with the big boys and reminded everyone of their European pedigree having won the competition on two previous occasions in 1987 and 2004. 

However, despite Porto's improvement this campaign, Liverpool will still fancy themselves to progress and will head to the Estadio do Dragao in a commanding position courtesy of goalscorers Keita and Firmino. 

An away goal would almost certainly put the game out of Porto's reach in a weeks time. 

Deja Vu for Portuguese giants

Klopp made his own tactical tweaks to the team that triumphed at St Mary's with Dejan Lovren starting for the first time in three months following an injury sustained in the FA Cup against Wolves in January. 

The Croatian started alongside the imperious Virgil van Dijk whilst Joel Matip and Gini Wijnaldum were handed rare nights off.

James Milner slotted in at left-back for the suspended Andy Robertson - who was serving a one-match ban - with the Englishman dazzling in the full-back role with his faultless versatility.

It was Milner's pass that inspired and ignited the opening goal after his sweeping ball found Sadio Mane's run before Firmino drove into space and teed up Keita, whose deflected strike bamboozled veteran keeper Iker Casillas leaving the World Cup winner with no chance.

It wasn't a goal to light the heavens but it was another sign of things beginning to swing in Keita's favour. His graft is finally beginning to pay off.

Mohamed Salah tormented Alex Telles on the right-hand side forcing the full-back into a potential early coma. The Egyptian King's greatest cheer on the night came when the Red's talisman operated as an emergency left-back to make a crucial interception on Otavio in his own half before winning his team a free-kick.

After firing his 50th Premier League goal for the Reds at Southampton and ending a goal drought of eight games, Salah should have made it 2-0 midway through first-half proceedings after the forward latched onto a woeful backpass but rolled a tame effort past Casillas and wide of the post. The disgust in his face painted the picture.

It did not matter however, Liverpool's inevitable second arrived moments later. Fabinho operated in his usual holding role allowing Henderson to gallop forward and plunge a dagger in the Porto backline - which the skipper did to perfection - with a perfectly weighted pass to Trent Alexander-Arnold which screamed for the right-back to find Firmino and double proceedings.

It was the English full-back's 10th assist of the season and the Brazilian's 15th goal of the campaign. 

Porto refused to buckle and their resilience was admirable and they even threatened to force an equaliser before the break. Moussa Marega spurned more than one opportunity including a brilliant save by the impregnable Alisson Becker who stood firm to deny with his boot. 

Considering the VAR antics in the other quarter-final tie at White Hart Lane, Liverpool did well to survive a VAR check for a penalty after Alisson had palmed the ball on the arm of Alexander-Arnold at point-blank range.

It failed to phase the hosts as they should of had a third when Mane put the ball in the back of the net following a delightful lofted pass by Henderson that was deemed just offside. It was a marginal call but ultimately the correct one as the decision stood. 

The visitors huffed and puffed for an equaliser but couldn't blow the house down with Liverpool's defence organised and astute to deny Porto the away goal they craved. 

More than once they ran into the colossal brick wall that is Van Dijk and time and time again the Netherland's skipper was always at hand to be in the perfect position to make vital tackles and interceptions.

Klopp experimented with changes introducing Divock Origi for Mane whilst Daniel Sturridge was given some valuable game time as the striker entered the field for Firmino.

Liverpool wobbled over the line with Marega's painfully high effort typifying Porto's night. 

It was hard work at times, but ultimately it was job done for Klopp and his troops.

Portugal awaits in eight days time.

 

 

 

 

 

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