Be honest, at the start of this season you’d have thought that the slightest bit of trouble against this Liverpool side in Europe would have seen us knocked out. It looked like that could be the case when we drew with Sevilla at Anfield and then Spartak Moscow away. Sevilla and Spartak Moscow. One beat us, deservedly, in the Europa League final a couple of years earlier and are carving a decent name for themselves on the continent. The other is always a tough away day but nothing to fear, in all honesty. Hardly anything to worry about for anyone else. But for Liverpool, these were potential banana skins. In fact, for many pessimists these were dropped points.
And the two draws certainly pointed to that. We didn’t look capable of getting through that group and finishing at its summit. There were points where it didn’t look like we would get through that group at all. But we did and we did so deservedly. OK, there was a mini blip in Seville, but results home and away against Maribor and the demolition of Spartak at Anfield were magical. Then we drew Porto in the round of 16. Another of those tricky games. People would have probably conceded the first leg as long as we didn’t lose too heavily, safe in the knowledge that we’d get back to Anfield and turn them over. The question wasn’t really whether we’d be in the quarter-finals or not, we all seemed pretty certain that would happen and have seen enough of this side lately to be confident of that. The questions more surrounded the method of progression. I don’t think anybody foresaw us going through in the first leg.
Porto were supposed to put up a fight. They were meant to be pacey and horrible. They were meant to be the trickiest tie we could have got aside from probably Shakhtar. There was supposed to be something to play for in the second leg. We were meant to go back to Anfield in the backseat not the driver’s seat. We were meant to have another European night at Anfield. That doesn’t really look necessary now, does it?
5-0. Five, nil. FIVE. FUCKING. NIL. Away in the Champions League. To the team currently top of their league and unbeaten in their previous 22 games. 5-0.
Sniff at it all you want, and plenty have. You can say Porto are playing in a terrible league. You can say they are hardly the Porto that won the Champions League under Jose Mourinho in 2004. You can say they’re hardly Europe’s elite. You can say we’ll face stiffer opposition in the Premier League and Champions League this season. To be honest, I agree with you on all of those points. The fact remains though that we went to the team top of the Portuguese league, unbeaten in 22 games, and absolutely fucked them.
I’m sorry to be so rough about phrasing it, but that’s what it was. It was an unforgiving, humiliating, relentless fucking. Porto were completely outclassed in every area of the pitch. They did what most teams do in the beginning – they mildly troubled us. After that though, they let our front three get into the game. Had they not watched us at all? They made no effort to stop them. In fact scratch that – they were powerless to stop them.
How do you stop them? Mohamed Salah has been a particular star of this show this season and Roberto Firmino has righty had his plaudits, but special mention has to go to Sadio Mane for this performance. If anyone need that, it was Mane. Since nearly beheading Ederson at the Etihad in September, he has hardly been the same player. I don’t know, it’s like he’s lost a little bit of bravery and belief in himself. He reminds of Butters on the episode of South Park, the one where he gives up tap dancing because his shoe flies of and kills a load of people. This was Mane putting his tap shoes back on.
He was well and truly back to his best. The thing with Mane, that many don’t actually praise him for, is his tactical awareness. He makes a lot of unselfish runs for the team, as does Firmino, which was a problem for us last season as there was nobody making selfish runs. With Mo Salah alongside them now though, that problem is remedied. He also makes space for marauding full backs beside him. Whether its Andy Robertson or Alberto Moreno, Mane and his left-back have this devastating knack of isolating the opposition full back until they give up defending and just… fail.
A lot of people could have said this was a fluke, if Liverpool hadn’t have done it do often this season. This was something special, another of those games that will define our season when we look back on it. Nobody saw this coming, not the manner of the victory. Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Manchester United. Don’t give a fuck who we get in the quarter-finals. We’ll take them two by two, and we’ll kick the fuck out of you because Liverpool is the team that we adore…