For the third year in a row, Liverpool’s hopes of progressing in the Champions League depended on the final match of the group stages. Yet, for the third year in a row, the Reds got the job done to book their place in February’s knockout stages.
After thrashing Spartak Moscow in 2017 and edging past Napoli in 2018, both at Anfield, this time Liverpool outclassed Red Bull Salzburg in Austria after winning 2-0 on Tuesday night.
Liverpool’s strength under Klopp ultimately too much for Salzburg
Goals from Naby Keïta and Mohamed Salah were the difference between Jürgen Klopp’s side and the Austrian champions, but the game could have gone either way with a bundle of goals in the first half. Nine shots on target were attempted by both sides combined in the opening forty-five minutes, yet somehow no goal arrived.
With Napoli easing past Genk, the match had effectively become a last-32 knockout tie, with Liverpool winning the first leg 4-3 at Anfield but knowing a defeat would most likely dump the Champions League holders into the Europa League.
The goals did not arrive until the second half, when Keïta, in another impressive performance following his display against Bournemouth last weekend, found the back of the net with a header, courtesy of the outstanding Sadio Mané’s efforts, to open the scoring for Liverpool.
The Reds needed a breakthrough to take a grip of the match and their destiny in the Champions League, and their number eight continued a breakthrough of his own by providing Liverpool’s first layer of comfort in Austria.
Contrasting night for Salah and Haaland
The second layer, and a knockout blow for Salzburg, was delivered by Salah.
The Egyptian star could easily have scored five goals, yet waited until the hardest chance of them all arrived to finally get on the scoresheet. After taking advantage of a defensive mix-up by Salzburg to go round goalkeeper Cican Stanković, Salah had an open goal but at an extremely tight angle.
Somehow, with an effort that almost defied physics, Salah shaved the ball past the near post, and consequently placed the ball into the netting by the far post before the ball could bend away back into play again. A truly unbelievable finish to demonstrate not only Salah’s world-class ability, but also the persistence of all great goalscorers.
By contrast, Salzburg’s teenage sensation Erling Braut Haaland was unable to impact the match with the sparkling form he has provided by Salzburg this season, placing him on the watchlist of many of Europe’s elite clubs. Haaland had a couple of openings, however they were not clear-cut and the Norwegian was unable to convert.
Despite their impressive efforts, Salzburg just did not quite have enough to overhaul Liverpool, both on Tuesday night and in the group overall. However, losing to arguably the best team in Europe at present is nothing to be ashamed of. Certainly no one will want to face them in the early knockout rounds of the Europa League.
No fear from Liverpool – instead a fear of Liverpool in the Champions League
Likewise, the same can be said of Liverpool ahead of the draw for the first knockout stage of the Champions League.
For the first time, all sixteen teams in the draw come from Europe’s top five major leagues. Paris Saint-Germain and Lyon are France’s representatives, Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and Red Bull Leipzig are Germany’s Bundesliga trio, with Italy being led by Juventus, Napoli and surprise package Atalanta. Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea and Manchester City join Liverpool from England and Spain’s usual trio of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid are present, alongside Valencia.
An impressive line-up indeed, and exciting match-ups are certain to take place – but before this turns into the script for UEFA’s presenters at the draw, are there particular teams Liverpool would prefer to face in the last sixteen? Probably.
Having topped their group by beating Salzburg, the Reds can face Atalanta, Lyon, Dortmund and the two Madrid sides, and undoubtedly they would prefer a tie against the first two sides.
However, as Andrew Robertson stated following the victory in Austria, no team will relish a draw against Liverpool, who have yet to lose a two-legged knockout tie under Klopp. Liverpool will fancy their chances against anyone at Europe’s top table, whilst continuing their Premier League title push.
Moreover, with the imminent January signing of Takumi Minamino from Salzburg, Liverpool’s squad is even stronger to continue their current supremacy of club football’s two biggest fronts.