The final page of the match-day programme at Anfield was a photograph of Steven Gerrard side-on, roaring in the direction of the Kop, celebrating victory over Olympiakos and qualification from the Champions League group stages by the finest of margins. Liverpool could do without one of their ‘famous European night’ here, though. A more routine victory would suffice.
It was exactly what they got. From their opener goal in the third minute to the seventh and final goal of the night, a place in the knockout phase for the first time since the 2008-09 season was never in doubt. Jürgen Klopp’s side only needed to draw to progress, but nevertheless pummelled Spartak Moscow to finish top of Group E and ensure English football will make up almost a third of the representatives in the competition’s last 16.
Few of the others, perhaps not even Manchester City, can claim to have an attack as devastating as the one at Jurgen Klopp’s disposal. All seven goals came from members of Liverpool’s ‘Fab Four’, with Philippe Coutinho scoring three, Sadio Mané two, while Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah claimed one each.
Klopp started the four together for the first time in the 1-1 draw between these two sides in September, when Spartak provided much stiffer resistance. The fear at the start of the night was that the same well-drilled Russian champions who held Liverpool that night and later thrashed Sevilla 5-1 in Moscow would come to Anfield and cause an upset.
It took just three minutes for Coutinho, captain in the absence of Jordan Henderson and James Milner, to settle any lingering nerves. The Brazilian’s long, lofted ball into the box found Mohamed Salah, who was being guarded by Georgi Dzhikiya. For reasons known only to the visiting defender himself, he thought it wise to haul Salah down. Referee Szymon Marciniak had no choice but to point to the spot. Coutinho converted.
He, Salah, Firmino and Mané lined themselves up as straight front four at times, in a formation that would potentially lead to defensive vulnerabilities against stronger opposition. Yet Klopp’s decision to field all of them at once was vindicated by a superb second, stroked home by Coutinho after the three others had combined to pull Spartak’s defence apart.
Mané was a particular thorn in the Russians' side down the right and when the Senegalese sent one cross in search of Salah, it rebounded back off Serdar Tasci’s arm. While Anfield asked for a penalty, Firmino jabbed a shot into the far corner. 3-0 up in the first half and on the brink of qualification again. What could possibly go wrong?
There would be no repeat of the collapse in Seville a fortnight ago this time though, and Klopp’s side made certain of their progression with a quick-fire double at the start of the second half. Mané added the fourth, acrobatically volleying from close range after James Milner, on for the injured Alberto Moreno, found the winger in space at the far post.
Minutes later, Coutinho sealed the first hat-trick of his Liverpool career. It was not the finest of his 51 goals for the club, with the ball taking a pivotal deflection off the hands of Salvatore Bocchetti and creeping underneath the goalkeeper Aleksandr Selikhov’s reach at the near post.
Any ounce of fight in Spartak had long disappeared and Liverpool scored their sixth and seventh at their leisure. With a quarter of an hour remaining, Mané produced a finish almost as audacious as first, turning Daniel Sturridge’s squared ball around Selikhov with the back of heel from yards out.
Of the ‘Fab Four’, only Salah was left to score and for a while, it looked as though the Egyptian would be forced to play Ringo. Yet in the final stages, after Milner’s cushioned header from the left, he collected ball, evaded one defender’s hopeless challenge and lifted a shot into the roof of the net.
Spartak’s best moment of the night came at its close. The merciful officials did not bother with any stoppage time.
Liverpool (4-4-1-1): Karius; Gomez, Klavan, Lovren (Alexander-Arnold 60), Moreno (Milner 45+1); Mané, Can, Wijnaldum, Coutinho; Salah; Firmino (Sturridge 72).
Substitutes not used: Mignolet, Henderson, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Solanke.
Spartak Moscow (4-2-3-1): Selikhov; Eschenko, Tasci, Bochetti, Dzhikiya (Pasalic 60); Glushakov, Fernando; Zobnin, Luiz Adriano, Promes (Samedov 75); Ze Luis (Melgarejo 51).
Substitutes not used: Rebrov, Kutepov, Popov, Pedro Rocha.
Referee: S Marciniak (Poland)
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