Having won 5-0 in the first leg of our Champions League last 16 tie in Porto twenty days ago, it’s fair to say that Liverpool were in an odd situation going into this game. Lose and we would still be through but there would be a negative air around our progression. Win and what have we gained? We were practically through before the game anyway. This left Jurgen Klopp with a predicament – play a strong team to avoid disruption of rhythm ahead of an important game at the weekend but risk tiring or injuring key players, or play a weakened side to rest said players but risk losing this game and upsetting rhythm in the process. It’s fair to say never has such a commanding lead felt so much like a burden.
Klopp said ahead of the game that he would play his strongest side. While it was a relatiely strong XI it was changed heavily from the team which lined up against Newcastle United on Saturday. Loris Karius continued in goal but was fronted by a back four which had three changes to it. Dejan Lovren was joined by Joel Matip in the centre, while they were flanked by Alberto Moreno and Joe Gomez. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, like Virgil Van Dijk, was rested for this game and was replaced by James Milner, who was imperious in Portugal three weeks ago. Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino were saved from the chop, but Mohamed Salah was forced to give up his place for Adam Lallana.
Porto manager Sergio Conceicao also decided to ring the changes, obviously accepting that his side’s chances of turning this tie on its head were slim. Iker Casillas came in for the calamitous Jose Sa in goal. Andre Andre, Abdul Majid Waris and Vincent Aboubakar also came in. They took the places of Sergio Oliveira, Yacine Brahimi and the impressive Otavio.
This game was always going to be of a low intensity with both sides accepting the tie was already over. Porto looked a tad more competitive than they did in the first leg, yet they failed to trouble Liverpool in the early stages. A couple of months ago hearts were in mouths every time our centre half pairing had to face balls over the top or quick counter attacks. Tonight, with a much more confident and proactive goalkeeper behind them, that didn’t seem be to be much of a problem. Karius looked to be much more communicative than Mignolet in this game, something which has been a prevailing theme since his reintroduction to the team.
Porto themselves have some important games on the horizon with a top of the table clash with Benfica and the second of a two-legged Portuguese Cup semi-final with Sporting Lisbon (they’re 1-0 up from the first-leg for those who are interested) coming up in the not too distant future. That was clearly on their mind during this game as they didn’t appear to be too ambitious in attack. It took seventeen minutes for the game to have its first clear cut chance and, unsurprisingly, it came for Liverpool. Joe Gomez attacked down the right hand side and crossed from the touchline. His deep ball evaded the head of Roberto Firmino but fell onto the outside of Sadio Mane’s right foot as the Senegalese forward launched himself at the ball. He remarkably managed to get good contact with it, however he could only send it inches over the bar.
As Liverpool continued to control proceedings it was us who carved out the next big chance, again through Mane. Alberto Moreno superbly kept the ball in play on the Liverpool left and played it back to Adam Lallana who had come over in support. He played it Milner, who chipped the ball towards Mane on the right corner of the box. Mane chested the ball and lashed a shot low towards Casillas’ bottom right corner. It beat the legendary Spanish stopper but not the post, rebounding off the woodwork and away from danger. Liverpool were beginning to build intensity but it would be the only meaningful chance of the half.
When the referee eventually blew for half-time it called time on a turgid half of football. Neither side had showed much in the way of actually wanting to win the game, although Liverpool were slightly the more adventurous of the two teams. It was in fact the first time since 25th November (vs. Chelsea at Anfield) that we had not registered a single shot on target in the first half of a game. That tells you all you need to know about the first period of this game.
The second half wouldn’t be much better in terms of entertainment but again showed Liverpool’s superiority over the opposition. One thing we have been criticised for regularly this season is our poor game management. That has certainly improved since the turn of the year at least but this game in particular epitomised that. At no point did we allow Porto to pose us a danger, even if they were half-arsed in attempting to do so. We controlled every area of the pitch, slowing play when we felt the need to and speeding it up in key areas. We showed glimpses of what we could do but never really over-exerted ourselves.
That wasn’t to say both teams didn’t create opportunities though. Just two minutes into the second half Adam Lallana cut the ball back to the onrushing James Milner, but he could only skew his shot wide of The Kop goal as he slid in to meet it. Not long after that, Roberto Firmino was played clean through by Milner. He raced clear but Porto captain Felipe caught up with him and did fantastically well to put Firmino off and block the shot. In between those two chances Porto had the first shot on target in the game. Abdul Majid Waris wriggled free on the edge of the Liverpool area to shoot towards Karius’ bottom right corner but the German was equal to the tame effort.
Jurgen Klopp started to make changes as the clock ticked down. First, Danny Ings replaced Roberto Firmino, then, more shockingly, Mohamed Salah came on for Sadio Mane. The two attacking substitutions made a difference too. In the last ten minutes both players had chances to win the game. Salah was first up, collecting the ball on the right of Casillas’ goal before unleashing a shot across which Casillas palmed away. Then, with two minutes of pay left, Salah crossed in for Ings. He found himself between the two Porto centre halve with time and space to head goalwards. His header was powerful but Casillas reached above his head to save spectacularly. If Ings had sent it back across the ‘keeper it would have been nigh on impossible to stop, even for Iker Casillas.
Porto had chances of their own to snatch a winner. Ten minutes from time, Jesus Corona came inside Alberto Moreno too easily before shooting through James Milners legs. However he could only pull his shot wide, still it was a warning Liverpool should have heeded. We didn’t. Four minutes later Porto had a free-kick on the left. It deflected into the path of Oliver Torres, who was unmarked from six yards out. He shot towards goal but Dejan Lovren stuck out a boot to block magnificently. It was as close as any side had or would come to winning the game.
The referee mercifully ended the game, and Porto’s Champions League campaign, minutes later, officially confirming Liverpool’s passage to the quarter-finals in the process. It is something we had known for a few weeks now but Liverpool are now properly in the business end of this competition. It seems for the past couple of weeks that we have been comfortably seeing off the opposition and easily winning games. This is all about to change. In the next four weeks we play some of the biggest games of our season, starting on Saturday at Old Trafford. It doesn’t come much bigger for Liverpool fans that Manchester United away. For now though let’s appreciate what this team has just accomplished. We are officially one of the best eight teams in Europe. Bring on your Roma by the score…