The Champions League is synonymous with Liverpool. There have been so many famous nights at Anfield that have been well documented, and you don’t need to start reeling off all the great memories we have down the years thanks to ‘ol’ big ears’. It’s a competition that this club needs to be in and, to be truthful, a competition that misses us when we aren’t in it. A couple of weeks ago in Seville we were a minute away from making it through to the knockout stages. Guido Pizarro’s last minute equaliser made sure that we would have to wait until the last match day to seal our progression. That being the case, it meant that this was a big one.
Jurgen Klopp was able to shuffle the pack once again ahead of the Merseyside Derby on Sunday. Loris Karius came back into the fold, this being a Champions League game and all. Joe Gomez also started in place of Trent Alexander-Arnold at right back, while Alberto Moreno replaced Andy Robertson on the other side. Ragnar Klavan returned to the backline as the manager reverted to a much more conventional shape by his standards. Jordan Henderson was surprisingly dropped to the bench Philippe Coutinho was given the captains armband in his absence. He would be joined in midfield by Emre Can and Gini Wijnaldum, both coming back into their much more familiar positions. Speculation mounted regarding who Klopp would pick up front, but he stuck with the usual front three of Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah.
Spartak made a couple of changes from the side which drew 1-1 with Liverpool on match day two in Moscow. Ilya Kutepov was the casualty of the defence as Massimo Carrera switched from a back five to a back four for this game. Ivelin Popov also made way for Quincy Promes, who would have featured in Moscow but for injury. Luiz Adriano would continue up front however, but Chelsea loanee Mario Pasalic would be replaced by Russia international Denis Glushakov.
Liverpool started the game on top as they usually do and were immediately rewarded for taking the initiative. Philippe Coutinho chipped a ball in towards Mo Salah on the edge of the Anfield Road End box, but Salah was pulled down by Georgi Dzhikia. The referee was miles away from the incident but was close enough to give the penalty. It was an awful decision by the full back which he was booked for and would ultimately cost his team. A big moment needed a big man and it took the captain for the night to step up and convert the penalty which had been a result of his chipped pass. Coutinho stuttered before sending the ‘keeper the wrong way and giving Liverpool the lead.
After the opening goal Spartak began to wake up. Quincy Promes was starting to see more of the ball and was making a nuisance of himself for the Liverpool backline. His direct running was worrying Klavan and Lovren but not enough force the desired mistake. He had a shot which was saved well by Karius but Liverpool would soon retake control of the game.
Spartak had goal kick which went as far as Dejan Lovren on the halfway line. The ball to Mane and, with nobody closing him down, he had time to turn and run at the Spartak defence. He played it centrally to Firmino, who played a first time ball out to Salah sprinting down the right. He also played a firs time ball across the box to Philippe Coutinho arriving at the back post – to finish first time. It was a sumptuous move which had settled the nerves around Anfield. The opposition were just starting to come into the game and the atmosphere had sort of become tense. This goal was just what the doctor had ordered. Minutes later, it would get even better.
Glushakov tried to play a ball to Dzhikia in the midfield had managed to play it to the heels of his team mate. It spun into the air and Mane was immediately onto it. He drove at the defence, sprinting away from Dzhikia in the process. He tried to chip it across the box but only found the back of Salvatore Bochetti. It fell perfectly into the path of Roberto Firmino, who had the simple task of scoring with the outside of his foot from seven yards. Liverpool were now in the driving seat and looking as if they could score at will.
It looked as if the game had finally settled, as was the result seemingly. Both sides began to exert their game plans after a whirlwind opening first twenty five minutes. Spartak started to come forward again and Liverpool attempted to pick them off. Although there was no real intensity to the game it still looked as if Liverpool could score at any minute. The centre back pairing of Serdar Tasci and Salvatore Bochetti for the Russian’s looked shaky and their full backs on either side were not providing much support. It seemed as if Spartak were playing exactly the way Mo Salah and Sadio Mane had dreamt they would the night before. Yet Liverpool’s plugging still yielded no fourth goal.
When the referee blew for half time it called an end to a strange half of football. On an uncharacteristically quiet European night at Anfield Liverpool hadn’t yet got out of third gear, but found themselves 3-0 up. Jurgen Klopp will have wanted more urgency and pace out of his players, the type of intensity they usually show when they rip sides apart. Massimo Carrera will probably have just wanted the game over quickly so he could start planning for life in the Europa League in February.
When the second half started Liverpool again came out on the attack and, again, they were rewarded immediately. Phil Coutinho picked the ball in the centre of midfield and turned to run onto the opposition defence. He slipped a ball into James Milner, on as a sub at the end of the first half, on the right, who released a sublime cross towards the back post. Sadio Mane arrived, unmarked, to emphatically volley home from eight yards in front of the Kop. It was a superb move which had a fantastic finish at the end of it. Liverpool were now surely home and dry, doing what they couldn’t do in Seville – put the game to bed after half time. We weren’t done there though.
Roberto Firmino found himself in possession of the ball on the right hand side of the box and played it to the onrushing Coutinho. He took one touch inside the area and hit towards goal. The ball deflected of Zobnin and past Alexander Selikhov at his near post. The goalkeeper dived but was unable to stop Coutinho scoring his hat-trick goal, and the goal which confirmed us as the top scoring English team in this season’s competition. We were now playing showboating stuff.
Despite the five goal advantage Liverpool continued to pour forward. Mo Salah had cheeky shot saved by Selikhov after some very nimble and impressive footwork in the area. James Milner was having an impact down the Liverpool right though. Spartak seemed devoid of any ideas on how to combat Milner and the ex-England international was having a field day up against the taunted Andrey Eschenko. Spartak chances were few and far between, but Quincy Promes managed to curl a shot wide of Karius’ goal before being substituted. Moments later they would suffer further embarrassment.
Pasalic was caught in possession in midfield by Sadio Mane and Liverpool were away. Mo Salah picked up the loose ball and slid in Daniel Sturridge, on as a sub. He took one touch into the area before squaring to the unmarked Mane, who had the simple task of converting the poor ball even though it was slightly behind him. 6-0. Good night, nurse. Liverpool would have more chances. First, Sturridge would round Selikhov and be brought down by the ‘keeper. The referee waved away appeals for a penalty on the basis he believed Sturridge had handled the ball. Replays disproved his theory and inferred a sense of sympathy in the ref’s decision. Then Sturridge would have another chance when Alexander-Arnold squared across the box but he could only poke his shot over the bar from inside the six yard box. Liverpool would get a seventh though from a predictable source.
With five minutes to go Emre Can chipped a ball into the area for James Milner. The man who had now ha d the armband found himself unmarked and nodded it back across goal towards Sturridge. He let the ball go and it fell to Mo Salah. He took one touch, dummied two defenders majestically and passed it into the top corner from five yards out before sliding on his knees in front of the Kop. It rounded off an excellent night for Liverpool and the referee blew the whistle soon after to end Spartak’s misery on Merseyside.
It was a game of comical defending and sublime attacking play. Liverpool had not only beaten Spartak, we had humiliated them. For the second time in a week we had thrashed much inferior opposition but with a much changed side. That will be the most pleasing thing for Jurgen Klopp to come out of these two wins – that we won convincingly with two different systems and two completely different teams. It shows the strength in depth Liverpool have this season and could signal great things for this side. Beating anyone 7-0 is a massive achievement. To do it in the Champions League goes further to add to how impressive this result is. With the Merseyside Derby up next this was the perfect result to go into that game.