If Liverpool were at all nervous going into their final group stage game of the Champions League, where a loss could have seen them exit the competition, they didn’t show it. The Reds raced out to a 3-0 lead within the first 20 minutes, and, unlike their last European fixture, made sure they didn’t throw away that lead, adding another four goals after half-time.
The 7-0 win over Spartak Moscow was the second time Liverpool have scored seven goals this season, both coming in the Champions League, and meant they finished the group stages with 23 goals – the most by an English team in a single group stage in Champions League history.
Here are three things we learned from Liverpool’s crushing win.
SEVILLA LESSON LEARNED FOR LIVERPOOL
When Liverpool went into half-time with a 3-0 lead, everyone must have had the same thought: surely they couldn’t blow this again? Jurgen Klopp‘s men made sure there were absolutely no jitters this time after the collapse in their previous Champions League fixture had allowed Sevilla to claw their way back to 3-3.
Lost amid the hand-wringing over defensive errors in that game was the fact that Liverpool had plenty of chances to add to their lead before it evaporated. So against Spartak on Wednesday, the Reds made sure not to make the same mistake. They came out after the break with the same intensity they’d shown at the start of the match, keeping their foot on the pedal and quickly scoring two more goals to make it 5-0. Nobody was thinking about a collapse after that.
CAPTAIN PHIL LEADS THE WAY
With Jordan Henderson dropped, Philippe Coutinho was handed the captain’s armband – and captain’s performances don’t come much better than this. A hat-trick in a game his team couldn’t afford to lose, on the Champions League stage. This was his first hat-trick for Liverpool, and he brought up 50 goals for the club in the process.
It wasn’t just his attacking performance – few people would have been surprised by that, even if they may rightly have been awed. But Coutinho also seemed to take to the added responsibility well. He could be seen barking instructions at times to his team-mates, and there was a moment in the second-half where he was perfectly positioned at the edge of his own box to snuff out a Spartak attack, although by this time, James Milner had come on and taken the armband from him. But his performance justified Klopp’s decision to hand him the armband. If Liverpool can keep ahold of him, this game could be marked as the day a new talismanic captain came of age.
SELECTION HEADACHE FOR KLOPP?
Whether Henderson was rested with this weekend’s derby clash against Everton in mind, or whether he was dropped for his poor performance against Sevilla, Liverpool’s play in his absence has given Jurgen Klopp a decision to make. Playing all of Liverpool’s Fab Four leaves only two midfield spots available, and Emre Can and Georginio Wijnaldum did nothing on Wednesday to suggest they shouldn’t be first-choice. They anchored the midfield well, and Can especially stood out with his passing.
Henderson offers a bit more solidity, but Can at his best is a better passer and better player all around, and Wijnaldum’s energy and positional sense, and his occasional lung-bursting runs, offer more to the team. The Englishman has been a faithful servant to Klopp, and the manager’s admiration for Henderson is well-documented, but he has to wonder if Liverpool are a better side without the club captain.
Two goals in the space of a minute in the second period saw United turn a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 win, after CSKA had struck right on the cusp of halftime.
Here are two good and two bad performances from United’s victory.
The much-maligned left-back was handed his first start of the season, and played like he had a point to prove. He was a menace in attack down the left flank, taking his opportunities to run at the CSKA defence whenever he had the chance. Shaw was caught out at times defensively, and was partially at fault for the Moscow goal, but he also put in a few good recovering tackles and showed that he has worked on that side of his game as well.
Mata has been relegated to the bench in recent times, making only three starts since being hauled off at halftime during United’s October loss to Huddersfield and not featuring at all in the club’s crucial clashes against Tottenham, Chelsea, and Arsenal. But on Tuesday, it was Mata at his best, picking out pockets of space for himself, making dangerous forward runs to provide an outlet in attack, and laying on chances for his teammates. It was his flick – with his weaker right foot, no less – that set-up Marcus Rashford for United’s winner.
The young CSKA midfielder didn’t have his best display. In fairness, having to handle Paul Pogba‘s marauding runs and Mata drifting all over the pitch to find space isn’t easy, but it was clear that the 21-year-old wasn’t up to the task. Golovin moved the ball well, but otherwise offered little control in midfield. He also was dispossessed far too easily, allowing United to develop their attacks further up the pitch.
Vasin was at fault for both of United’s goals, and that cost his side their chance at a shock result. After United’s bright start, the hosts were struggling to break down CSKA’s defence, but in the space of a minute, Vasin was beaten by both of home team’s strikers, and both times, the striker in question scored. First, he allowed Romelu Lukaku to get goal side of him on a run, and the Belgian duly poked home United’s equaliser. Then, Lukaku’s flicked header ultimately fell to Mata, who produced a flick of his own – sublime skill, it must be said – over Vasin’s head, for Rashford to sweep home.
Romelu Lukaku and Marcus Rashford sealed the success over CSKA Moscow to ensure a 40th successive game without defeat at their Old Trafford home – a club record last achieved between 1964 and 1966 by their legendary former boss’s famed side.
With a crucial Manchester derby to follow on Sunday, the triumph provided the perfect lift for Mourinho’s men.
The decisive goals, 67 seconds apart in the 64th and 66th minutes, completed an impressive comeback from the hosts after they had fallen behind in the 45th minute to a strange goal.
Vitinho’s strike went in after hitting Alan Dzagoev on the back with the midfielder offside, but played on by United defender Daley Blind who had slid behind the goal and was still deemed active.
CSKA needed to win by seven clear goals to stop the hosts going through, but that was never going to happen.
What this game did, though, was perhaps herald the rebirth of injury-plagued left-back Luke Shaw.
Three years since his much-vaunted arrival from Southampton, this was only his 50th appearance. With 48 minutes of previous action this season, Shaw was handed a first start since April. Under scrutiny, under pressure, this was a chance to prove his worth – and a point to arguably his harshest critic, Mourinho.
The United boss witnessed commitment and quality at both ends of the pitch.
Dashing down the left, Shaw met an Antonio Valencia cross with a volley that forced CSKA keeper Igor Akinfeev into the first part of a fine double save, spreading himself to block Lukaku’s follow up.
Shaw then made a great run in behind the defence but his low cross just eluded Rashford.
It formed part of a strong United start. After only three minutes, Lukaku showed good strength and skill to send Rashford clear, but his shot rolled against the inside of the post.
Rashford then tested Akinfeev with another low effort. The visitors were struggling but got a break just before half time with Dzagoev’s opener.
United restored parity when Paul Pogba floated over a perfect pass for Lukaku to finish with a stretching volley. A minute later Juan Mata lofted a pass for Rashford to finish with aplomb.
Romero: Deputising for the rested De Gea, but didn’t have a shot to save until he picked the ball out of the net. Denied Dzagoev near the end. 6
Lindelof: Very little to do, but an assured display from the Swede which will help his confidence. 7
Smalling: The defensive commander and marshalled his side well. Dangerous on set-pieces too. 7
Blind: Comfortable in a three-man Inadvertently played a crucial part in CSKA’s opener when off the pitch and playing Dzagoev onside. 6
Valencia: Driving runs from the United skipper down the right and equally combative at the back. 7
Herrera: A peripheral figure when he had the opportunity to press his claims for a start against City on Sunday. 5
Pogba: The dismissal at Arsenal may have contributed to a largely subdued performance, but still produced a peach of a pass to set up Lukaku for his volleyed strike. 6
Shaw: It was like the Shaw of old, driving down the left to support his attack and determined in defence. 8
Mata: Neat and tidy, but a player of his calibre needs to be more involved as he was in the second half. 7
Lukaku: Solid and offered good support to Rashford, his second goal in 13 games will have done his confidence the world of good. 7
Rashford: A well-taken goal, but wasteful with other chances when he could have had a hat-trick. 7
McTominay (for Herrera 66′): Offered stability in the midfield and composed display as United took control. 6
Tuanzebe (for Valencia 71′): Gave his captain a rest as he gained more first-team experience. 6
Martial (for Lukaku 73′): Another brought on to provide Lukaku with a breather before the derby. 6