Magical Mohamed Salah struck a crucial 39th goal of the season to send Liverpool into the Champions League semi finals at the expense of English rivals Manchester City.
With a 3-0 deficit to overturn from the first leg, Pep Guardiola’s side got the perfect start in only the second minute as Virgil van Dijk was hurried into a mistake and Fernandinho slipped through a pass for Raheem Sterling and he teed up Gabriel Jesus to slot home.
The hosts were dominant after that and Bernardo Silva curled an effort against the post before a controversial and crucial moment.
A poor punch by Loris Karius struck James Milner, not Jesus, and bounced back goalwards where Leroy Sane touched home.
But referee Antonio Lahoz ruled the goal out for offside. An irate Guardiola was sent to the stands at half time for venting his feelings on the matter and City’s hopes were sunk.
Salah chipped home to level on the night before Roberto Firmino struck a second to seal a 5-1 aggregate success.
If ever there was doubt about Mohamed Salah’s current standing, this game should dispel any doubts, end any arguments.
The Egyptian hero has been Liverpool’s talisman all season but hardly had a kick in the first half at the Etihad amid injury concerns and his side’s tactics in sitting deeper.
But when the Reds needed him most, he delivered, landing the knockout blow to City’s hopes and sending his side into the semis.
Salah is to Liverpool what Lionel Messi is to Barcelona, what Cristiano Ronaldo is to Real Madrid. In his debut season at Anfield, his inspirational abilities will see him rank with the legends who have worn red over the years.
Be it Kevin Keegan, Kenny Dalglish, Ian Rush, Steven Gerrard and Luis Suarez. Every team needs a brilliant individual to win the biggest trophies and Salah is Liverpool’s prize guy.
While VAR may not sit well with every football fan and there will always be debatable decisions, there can be few who would want a game ruined by more inept refereeing.
Wasn’t the whole point of technology to stop this? The outcome of a massive game like this, watched by the world, should not hinge on a decision that defied logic and understanding.
It was one that every referee and his assistant should have known about before they were allowed to take the field in a lower league game, let alone one of this magnitude.
When Loris Karius punched out a clearance under pressure and the ball rebounded quite clearly off James Milner and back towards goal, Leroy Sane was not offside as he touched home.
VAR would have confirmed that and 2-0 up at half time, City would have had the greater momentum in their comeback quest. Instead, they were incensed and hurting.
With Guardiola sent to the stands for venting his fury, City lost their commander, their 12th man, on the touchline too. Referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz had a shocker, missing handballs and failing to act decisively to cut out blatant fouls from Liverpool players like Roberto Firmino who should have been shown two yellow cards rather than be on the pitch to score.
STERLING CENTRAL TO CITY
It’s been a difficult week for Sterling. Having not started at Liverpool in the first leg, he was handed the main striking role in Saturday’s derby with Manchester United and glaring misses contributed to a 3-2 defeat that denied City the Premier League title.
But it is testament to his character and class that he did not let that affect him against his former club. He did not hide as he produced another enterprising and engaging display to emphasise what a talent he is and integral to City’s future.
The game also highlighted where he is best utilised too. He is no central striker as perhaps the burden of being the main source of goals may be too much and there is no need for that pressure with Sergio Aguero or Gabriel Jesus around.
But playing off Jesus last night he proved a livewire, drifting off the flanks with freedom and an appetite for destruction. It was his hustling of Virgil van Dijk that led to the opener for Jesus and he was a constant threat.
With pace, panache and purpose he is a handful for any defence. At 23, he is only going to get better.
Barcelona simply could not compete with the Italians’ physicality as Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi were outmuscled and out-thought by the likes of Kevin Strootman and Daniele De Rossi.
Edin Dzeko and a De Rossi penalty gave the visitors jitters before defender Kostas Manolas finished the job.
Barca’s ratings make for grim reading …
Marc-Andre ter Stegen 8 – Repelled Dzeko, Nainggolan and Schick and was ultra-quick off his line. El Shaarawy near the end too, but wasn’t enough.
Nelson Semedo 4 – Clearly rattled under pressure and has a tendency to make poor decisions in dangerous areas.
Gerard Pique 4 – Earns one point alone for his superb last-ditch block on Schick in first half. But foul on Dzeko for the penalty was inexplicable.
Samuel Umtiti 3 – In no man’s land for the opener and his jitters noticeably transferred across the back-line. Another poor performance
Jordi Alba 5 – Was always going to lose the battle against powerful attackers, but was the most convincing piece of Barca’s ill-fitting jigsaw.
Sergi Roberto 4 – Offered nothing going forward and afforded little protection down his flank. Surely Dembele would have been a better option.
Ivan Rakitic 5 – The only Barca player to give any thrust but even that faded after the opening stages, as Roma never wavered.
Sergio Busquets 4 – Metronomic midfielder was knocked around and made little impact up against Roma’s energy.
Andres Iniesta 3 – Ran down several blind alleys and could do nothing to prevent the red tide.
Lionel Messi 4 – Who can remember the little wizard playing as badly as this? Hounded all night by Nainggolan, Strootman and De Rossi.
Luis Suarez 3 – Did a lot of pouting to very little effect, though was isolated given Roma’s midfield dominance.
Ousmane Dembele NA – Far too little, far too late in last five minutes. Where was he when Barca needed to turn the tide?
Andre Gomes NA – Story is more about Iniesta being taken off in last 10 minutes – shows how ineffective the captain was.
Paco Alcacer NA – A last frantic roll of the dice, but Alcacer is not a guy who turns up double sixes.
Liverpool survived the early concession of a goal to complete the job at Manchester City and roar into the Champions League’s semi-finals.
Holding a 3-0 advantage from the first leg at Anfield, some nerves would have been caused when ex-Red Raheem Sterling robbed Virgil van Dijk and teed up Gabriel Jesus for a second-minute tap-in.
But Jurgen Klopp’s men held firm to earn a 2-1 win on the night and 5-1 triumph on aggregate. Mohamed Salah chipped in before the hour mark, before the superb Roberto Firmino soon dispossessed Nicolas Otamendi and found the bottom corner for the second
This made it three defeats in a week for the chastened Premier League’s champions-elect.
Here are our Liverpool player ratings:
Loris Karius – 6: Lack of work would have surprised ex-City youth player. Only had to repel three shots on target.
Trent Alexander-Arnold – 8: Did another solid job on Sane, despite City’s overload. Led way with an impressive six interceptions.
Dejan Lovren – 7: One rash challenge on Sterling aside, the Croatia centre-back was superb. Flicked Bernardo Silva’s shot onto the post.
Virgil van Dijk – 6: Tantrum after Sterling challenge led to early opener. Then went on to dominate aerially in typical fashion.
Andrew Robertson – 6: Nothing spectacular in attack this time from rampaging Scot. Steadily suppressed Bernardo Silva’s influence.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – 6: Nearly finished off wonderful move, but shot high from tight angle. Industrious, without any real highlights.
Georginio Wijnaldum – 6: Stand-in for suspended Jordan Henderson improved dramatically after the break. Ended up making team’s fourth-most passes with 28.
James Milner – 7: The ex-City midfielder’s knee was forensically analysed for Sane’s disallowed goal. Otherwise, diligently stuck to his task.
Sadio Mane – 7: Second red card of season at City looked possible when he crunched Otamendi. Showed wonderful skill for Salah’s goal.
Mohamed Salah – 7: Goal 39 of this incredible debut campaign was chipped in with minimum fuss, his first real involvement.
Roberto Firmino – 8: Brazil forward was selfless personified. Made two tackles and tracked back well. Punished Otamendi superbly to kill all doubts with second.
Ragnar Klavan – N/A: Performed miserably in September’s 5-0 drubbing at Etihad Stadium. Much better in brief cameo this time.
Nathaniel Clyne – N/A: England man’s comeback from long-term injury continued with his minutes on pitch.
Danny Ings – N/A: Barely got a kick during his few minutes on the pitch.