When the draw for the last 16 of the Champions League was made nine weeks ago and Liverpool were paired with Porto, both teams would probably have been content with their fate. The Reds began the tie as narrow favourites, although many observers were wary of the Portuguese league leaders’ unbeaten domestic season and 24-match run without defeat in all competitions. A lot of Liverpool fans would probably have taken a score draw or a narrow away win at the Estadio Dragao to take back to Anfield for the second leg, especially with it being the club’s first appearance at this phase of the competition in nine years.
It didn’t quite go like that. Instead, it was Liverpool at their devastating, scintillating best, with no shortage of robust organisation thrown in either. It was beyond perfect in terms of European away assignments. It was also a night of vindication for Sadio Mane, who emphatically banished doubts over his recent form by helping himself to a hat-trick. With the other two members of the Reds’ formidable attacking trio also getting on the scoresheet, the end result was Porto’s heaviest ever home defeat in European competition.
Jurgen Klopp handed Liverpool debuts in this competition to Virgil van Dijk, who had played for Celtic in the tournament previously, and Andrew Robertson, who did not feature in any of the Reds’ six group games. He kept faith with Loris Karius between the sticks, the German being his preferred number one in the group stage. Also, Dejan Lovren was chosen ahead of Joel Matip at centre-back and Jordan Henderson came in for the suspended Emre Can.
In the driving north Portuguese rain, it was the home side who made the better start and they created the game’s first notable chance on nine minutes through Otavio, whose shot from the edge of the area was blocked by Lovren and looped just over Karius’ crossbar. Porto edged the first quarter-hour, but then the visitors grew into the game and had their first sight of goal in the 19th minute when a dreadful kick-out from Porto goalkeeper Jose Sa, preferred to Iker Casillas this term, led to Mohamed Salah driving into the area and trying to lay the ball off for Mane, but Diego Reyes tracked the Egyptian well to cut out the danger.
The hapless Sa was not so fortunate six minutes later. Again he kicked the ball straight to an orange shirt and Georginio Wijnaldum surged into the area before getting his shot off. The Dutchman’s effort was blocked but the ball fell to Mane, whose far from rasping shot squirmed underneath Sa and over the line to give Liverpool a fortuitous opening goal.
If Liverpool’s first goal owed to a goalkeeping howler, their second was all down to a flash of individual genius from the mercurial Salah. Porto complained that Moussa Marega was illegally shoved off the ball by James Milner, but the English veteran simply wanted it more and he saw a curling shot rebounding off the post into the path of the waiting Salah, who flicked the ball over Sa, controlled it with his head and dinked it home to put the Reds in a very commanding position on the half-hour mark.
Porto appeared to be fading in confidence after that double blow and found it difficult to get out of their own half, but they almost caught Liverpool cold two minutes before the half-time whistle when Tiquinho Soares found himself with space to shoot inside the Reds’ penalty area, his effort whistling just wide of the post. It was a warning to Liverpool that this tie was not done, with minds flashing back to the collapse in Seville from an even stronger position in November as the first half drew to a close.
Klopp would most likely have instructed his players not to let complacency seep in during the second half and, if such a message was communicated, the men in orange followed it to the letter. Eight minutes after half-time, Liverpool broke on a devastating counterattack that began with a deft Roberto Firminho backheel into the path of Salah, who drove forward before slipping his Brazilian team-mate in for a shot that Sa did well to save. Unfortunately for the Porto keeper, the ball went straight to the waiting Mane, who steered it home to essentially kill the tie.
Porto still had almost 40 minutes to test Liverpool’s defensive concentration but could not rouse themselves to seriously threaten their visitors. Misplaced passes were abundant while most 50-50 challenges went the way of a Liverpool team whose desire did not let up. The fourth goal arrived on 69 minutes and it was the persistence of Mane which played a big part in it, the Senegal man winning the ball in midfield and shrugging off his marker to pick out Milner, who slipped it to Firmino for a pinpoint finish into the bottom corner of the Porto net.
That was the cue for Klopp to use his substitutes, bringing on Matip, Joe Gomez and Danny Ings to see the match home. Mane almost completed his hat-trick in the 82nd minute when he fired over from a brilliant Robertson cross, but the triple would come shortly afterwards in the form of a 25-yard shot placed neatly beyond Sa, for whom Valentine’s Day was an utter massacre.
Not even the most hopelessly optimistic of Liverpool fans could have asked for a night like this. Five goals, a clean sheet, Mane back to his brilliant best, Salah reaching the 30-goal mark with a third of the season still to play, another assured night for the van Dijk-Lovren partnership. As things stand, Liverpool are due to face Manchester United four days after the second leg, although victory for Jose Mourinho’s men in the FA Cup on Saturday would see the Reds’ Old Trafford trip rescheduled. Should that not materialise, the second leg of the Porto tie provides the perfect chance for Klopp to give the big guns the night off. Either way, it’s likely that Salah, Firmino and Mane would not be urgently needed for when the Portuguese club come to Anfield on 6th March. That is a dream scenario which nobody was anticipating prior to last night’s European masterclass.