Reds in 7th Heaven by Caislin Boyle @cashboyle
There are just some things that are better seen in real life, and Liverpool’s front four in frightening unison is one of them. I was lucky enough to be stood in the Kop end as Liverpool thrashed an abject Spartak Moscow side to progress as group winners into the final 16 of the Champions League. For the first time in 9 years, Liverpool are at Europe’s top table, without fear and entirely on merit. It feels good. I walked home from the game last night with the lingering tingle associated with watching your team succeed.
If it was a pleasure to watch the front four weave their magic, it was equally so to witness the way the ensemble cast provided the foundations for them to do so. Notwithstanding the relatively weak nature of the opposition, that was one of the most complete Liverpool performances I have ever seen. Defensively sound, offensively irrepressible. Jürgen Klopp is noted for saying that responding to adversity is one of his favourite challenges in football, and why not, when the reaction to that Spurs defeat has been our current run of form.
We set up in a 4-2-2-2 formation with Moreno, Klavan and Gomez returning to form a flat back four. We had Wijnaldum and Can in central midfield, Coutinho and Mané in front of them and Firmino and Salah up top. It’s difficult to pin our fluidity to a specific formation but our shape suggested that’s what we were doing. Robertson, Alexander-Arnold, Henderson and Milner dropped out along with Mignolet who rotated for Karius. Fans were excited by both the line-up and by the return of Can and Wijnaldum to their primary positions. With the exception of Matip, this lineup represented our current best 11. That opinion may be contentious due to the omissions of Henderson and Oxlade-Chamberlain, but the eventual result vindicates my assertion. This is currently our best team.
Normally I’d reserve a paragraph for the opposition line-up, but honestly, who cares? Spartak could’ve played a team of world beaters but would have still succumbed to the mighty Reds. We were scintillating, and the ability to deliver such a performance under the cloud of ‘needing a result’ was so impressive.
As I nestled between two rotund gentlemen on the Kop there was no time to settle. Within 4 minutes the place was in raptures, as I struggled to thrash about as strongly as my male counterparts who were all over 6 foot tall. Spartak had conceded the most obvious penalty known to man. Giving one of Europe’s most potent attacks the chance to take the lead within 4 minutes surely was not part of the plan. Coutinho did not care one iota, and dispatched the penalty with the confidence of a man who knows his stock has risen to the highest echelon in world football.
The next goal came 11 minutes later and followed one of those flowing team moves that have become synonymous with Liverpool. Coutinho got his brace following a Firmino pass. I mentioned above that watching our attack in full flow in better seen in real life, and this is epitomised by watching Firmino play. He is rightly lauded as the ultimate team player & watching him only reinforces how deserving he is of that praise.
I barely had time to eat my Mars bar before we had scored again, sending the Reds into dreamland by being 3 up on 18 minutes. This time the Firmino got his goal, a deflected Mané cross falling into his path.
On Twitter someone had quipped that ‘Spartak had Liverpool exactly where they wanted them’, a joke referring to our Seville collapse. Amusing though it was, there was never any sign of such a collapse. The factors didn’t allow for it – Spartak are a weaker side than Seville, they didn’t have an imperious home record to protect and we didn’t have a Moscow born player in our team who never plays well against his home town club. Moreno (until unfortunately injured) was excellent in this game. 3-0 to the Reds in a pulsating first 20.
Then came a lull – the rest of the half passed without us scoring. We always looked dangerous, and you could particularly see Salah and Mané were desperate to get in on the act but the score remained 3-0. The interesting aspect of this game was that we didn’t pepper the Spartak goal with dozens of shots, with only 17 in total over 90 minutes. However, we scored 7 from the 10 on target. A 70% score percentage from shots on target is magnificent, particularly from a side who many would argue doesn’t contain a ‘natural goalscorer’.
That was one of the bugbears regarding Liverpool’s transfer business; there was no true number 9 like Morata, Lukaku or Lacazette. With each passing week that criticism looks increasingly ill-founded, with Firmino re-defining what a true number 9 is.
The first-half came to a close and I was so excited for the second half I didn’t even have a toilet break for fear of not making it back in time. Though my bladder didn’t thank me by the end, I didn’t miss Mané’s first goal. Milner (who was fantastic during his 45 minutes on the pitch) hit an inch-perfect cross which Mané volleyed expertly into the net at the Kop end. 4-0 with no sign of the Liverpool attack abating. Mané’s goal bore a similarity to Salah’s finish against Stoke, both isolated near the far post, both skilled enough to finish off sublime crosses.
The fifth goal, which completed Coutinho’s hat-trick, was the only fortuitous one of the bunch. A shot from the Brazilian deflected off a Spartak leg and blindsided the keeper. The Russian’s looked demoralised by the fact that they been reduced to an amateur looking outfit by Liverpool Football Club. The game then slowed down, a natural consequence of knowing a lead was safe with the Derby in mind. However, even at reduced pelt we still scored two more goals.
What I like about us this season is that the substitutions are rarely obvious – we have such quality on the bench that it keeps the players and fans alike guessing. This time it was Lovren given a rest on the hour, wise given Matip’s injury. Alexander-Arnold came on, giving many of us what we want; Joe Gomez at centre-back for Liverpool. Spartak did not trouble the youthful duo, boding well for our long-term future.
We made our final change before goal number 6 – Firmino rightly given a standing ovation before being replaced by Sturridge. He played his part, failing to score but providing an assist for Mané’s second, a lovely improvised finish after a cross from Sturridge. With 3 of the so called ‘fabulous four’ scoring, Mo Salah was palpably desperate to add his name to the scoresheet.
Having had a shot well saved a few minutes before, he then did score to wrap up the famous victory on 86 minutes. Sturridge once again was involved, making a nuisance of himself in the box and allowing Salah the space to sell the dummy and finish emphatically into the top corner. He must be addicted to adding his name into Liverpool folklore, as fans were ecstatic that he had gotten his goal.
The game then petered out as the gulf in class was displayed proudly on the iconic Reds scoreboard. Seven goals, four scorers and new records made. With that rout Liverpool beat the English record for goals scored in a Champions’ League group stage, eclipsing Manchester United by scoring 22. Coutinho scored his first hat-trick for the club. Firmino equalled his total from last season (in December). Milner got 3 assists in 45 minutes.
The only downside is Moreno’s injury, but there is even encouragement in the fact that he has become someone who is missed when not there.
People rightly criticise us in some departments, but anyone who believes we aren’t developing at an exciting rate has some kind of anti-Liverpool agenda. When the management, the personnel and the system dovetail effectively, there is nothing that can’t be achieved.
As for the last 16, bring it on! As a Liverpool fan I want us to be in the argument, in the mix, in contention. As the focus shifts back to the Premier League for a prolonged period, I already can’t wait for February. My first experience of the Kop end was like nothing I have ever experienced before, but something I need to experience again.