Instead, thanks to an inspired performance from Philippe Coutinho, the home side ran riot in a 7-0 win over Spartak Moscow that ensured they topped their group.
Here are two good and two bad performances from the game.
Captain on the night until James Milner came on, and boy did Coutinho rise to the occasion. He scored his first hat-trick for Liverpool and became only the third player to score a Champions League hat-trick for the club, after Michael Owen and Yossi Benayoun. The Brazilian also brought up 50 goals for his Liverpool career. Not a bad night, then.
Coutinho seemed to relish the responsibility of the armband. He could be seen rallying his team-mates, handing out instructions when necessary, and tracking back with vigour. Most importantly, his intensity never dropped, even as Liverpool kept on scoring. This sort of performance in a must-win game is a captaincy hallmark, and if he stays at Liverpool beyond this season, Coutinho could be the next Steven Gerrard.
In an odd way, it’s a shame that James Milner is such a selfless player. He is an excellent midfielder and deserves to be starting there for Liverpool, and, to be fair, he often does. He’s also a more than capable left-back, and that’s where he’s gotten most of his playing time for the Reds, and before that, for Manchester City. It’s not his preferred position – and he moved to Liverpool in order to get more time in midfield – but he plays there without complaints, and delivers more often than not from that position.
Most times, when Milner is picked at left-back, it’s to offer Liverpool greater defensive solidity. But on Wednesday, the Englishman showed he’s lost none of his attacking nous, setting up Sadio Mane’s stunning goal, Liverpool’s fourth, with a trademark run and cross. He bagged another assist soon after, cutting back onto his right foot and laying the ball off to Coutinho, who duly completed his hat-trick.
Where Coutinho rose to the occasion of being captain, his opposite number had a horrid time on the pitch. No, Denis Glushakov was not solely responsible for Spartak’s capitulation on the night. But his team was crying out for leadership, and their captain couldn’t respond.
Glushakov was bypassed too easily in midfield, but more than that, he seemed to visibly lose spirit even before Liverpool were out of sight. When Spartak fell a goal behind, then two, then three, at no point did it seem like Glushakov could calm his team down, or rally his charge. It was an unexpectedly poor outing from an experienced hand.
Georgi Dzhikiya’s game started in the worst possible way, as he gave away an early penalty that put paid to any chance Spartak had of staying compact and holding fort against the Liverpool attack before finding a killer goal – which must surely have been the plan. Instead, Dzhikiya’s foul on Mohamed Salah in the box, a clumsy tackle as he ran straight into the Egyptian, let Liverpool take an early lead, settle down, and play Spartak out of the game.
From that moment onwards, Dzhikiya’s game only got worse, as it was often down his side that Liverpool found their best attacking play. Spartak’s defence was a shambles throughout, but the 24-year-old stood out for the number of times he was caught out by a marauding Liverpool.
Liverpool strolled into the knockout rounds of the Champions League for the first time since 2009 as a rapturous Anfield crowd were sent into seventh heaven with a mesmerising display of attacking football.
Jurgen Klopp’s hosts were excellent right from the start, with Philippe Coutinho converting a fourth-minute penalty after Mohamed Salah was hauled down inside the box. Two more in the space of three minutes – Coutinho’s second was an excellent team move, and Roberto Firmino – effectively ended the contest, but already qualified Liverpool were not done there.
Four more goals followed in the second-half as Klopp’s men went for the kill. Sadio Mane got in on the act just after the break and then added a second – in between Coutinho sealing his hat-trick. And Salah had the final say as he rifled in number seven to send out a message that the Reds are back at Europe’s top table, and back with a bang.
Here, we analyse the performance of Liverpool’s Mane man.
Goals – 2
Shots – 5
Shots on target – 2
Touches – 65
Key passes – 2
Dribbles – 2
Dispossessed – 1
Aerials won – 0
This was Mane’s eighth game back following a month out with injury, and he had only found the net prior to the match in one of the previous seven – gradually finding his way back to both form and fitness.
And while Coutinho, Salah and Firmino swarmed all over Spartak Moscow from the off, it looked as if the Senegal man would struggle to make an impact.
That all changed in the 15th minute when he orchestrated the second goal, surging from his own half to feed Salah, who then found Firmino who teed up Coutinho for a sublime team goal.
Spartak could barely get into the game, which became even harder with the second goal the cue for Mane to take charge. He hugged the right touchline and constantly drifted in from it, causing headache for the visitors’ defenders. He clipped in to Firmino for him to kill the game.
Spartak might have hoped the hosts would then sit back and conserve their energy, but Mane seemed determined to make up for his slow start. The second-half wasn’t even two minutes old before he thumped in a fourth from James Milner’s cross, picking up a good position at the back post.
He netted again late on to make it six, showing his boundless energy is a weapon in defence too as he dispossessed a defender before freeing Sturridge down the right. He then had the legs to get into the box and on the end of Sturridge’s delivery to prod in.
With a busy Christmas period on the horizon for Liverpool and the latter rounds of the Champions League to come in the New Year, Mane looks like he is approaching something akin to his best form at exactly the right time for his club.
15th min – quiet up until this point and his part is understated, but the wideman sparks Liverpool’s second goal, which essentially kills the game off with 75 minutes still remaining. He drives from halfway and spots the fine run of Salah. The Egyptian then feeds a ball through to Firmino who rolls it across goal to Coutinho who calmly sidefoots home. Beautiful goal.
19th min (ASSIST) – Wow. What a start from the rampant Reds. Mane is quickly into his stride, the Senegalese surges forward and clips a cross into the box. It strikes Spartak defender Tasci on the arm but Firmino isn’t appealing for a second penalty, stabbing home with the outside of his right boot.
47th min (GOAL) – Well, it took a while for the Silky Senegalese to get into the game, but he has grown into it and delivers a sumptuous volley to signify Liverpool’s utter dominance. Half-time substitute James Milner gets free down the left and arcs a ball into the box, Mane positions himself and thunders an emphatic side-footed effort past Aleksandr Selikhov.
76th min (GOAL) – Misery mounts for Moscow as Mane nets his second of the night. He initiates the move by winning possession in midfield and going on the attack. He spreads the ball wide to Daniel Sturridge before hooking in the England man’s centre.
VERDICT – 9/10
The Senegal flyer has a flash of bright blond colouring in his no doubt expensive hair do, and despite Philippe Coutinho scoring a hat-trick, the former Saints star was not about to be outshone by the Brazilian.
The Reds roared into the game from the off, and although it took Mane 15 minutes to find his feet, his contribution was telling. Starting the move for the second, he provided the assist for their third before getting in on the act in the second-half with a brace in an all-round sparkling display.
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.