Russian romp Coutinho’s hat-trick leaves Liverpool in seventh heaven
Liverpool have their ‘Fab Four’ and the Premier League have their ‘Fantastic Five’ as the quintet of English clubs all qualified for the last 16 of the Champions League – which is the first time any country has achieved that remarkable feat. Here there was also a ‘Magnificent Seven’ goal rush.
They completed it in wonderful style, blowing away Spartak Moscow with an exhilarating attacking display orchestrated by their four relentless attackers. Philippe Coutinho, captaining the side, struck his first Liverpool hat-trick, while Sadio Mane, twice, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah all scored as they topped Group E.
Manager Jurgen Klopp had described this showdown as “all or nothing” and so his team gave their all and left the embarrassed Russian champions with nothing. The goals mean Liverpool scored an incredible 23 times in their six group games, only bettered by Paris Saintt-germain this season, with a record 25 goals – and more than any English team has ever scored, more than Manchester United in 1998-99, when they won it.
“Wow, how did that happen,” Klopp said later. For Liverpool it is the first time they have reached the Champions League group stages since 2009, and it felt like a significant landmark for them, having fallen short in 2010 and 2014, ahead of Sunday’s Merseyside derby. The one setback, with ramifications for that fixture, was the loss of Alberto Moreno to an ankle injury that reduced him to tears.
The game was quickly over. Liverpool claimed three goals in a devastating 14-minute first-half spell, aided by some horrendous defending from Spartak, partly forced by some awesome attacking from all angles. The lead was gift-wrapped inside four minutes. It came from a penalty, awarded after Georgi Dzhikiya bizarrely pulled back Salah following a cross by Coutinho, even though it was sailing over the head of the pair of them. Did Dzhikiya slip? Maybe. But he still held Salah’s arm, bringing the striker down with him. Coutinho stepped up and calmly lifted the ball to the goalkeeper’s left, as Aleksandr Selikhov dived to his right.
The Kop’s raucous reaction had probably helped make up the mind of Polish referee Szymon Marciniak, but it was mad defending by Dzhikiya. It was also – at three minutes and 51 seconds – the fastest goal in a Champions League game at this stadium.
Liverpool were buoyed; Liverpool were rampant. Klopp had reunited that attacking quartet, after several games of rotation, although he later described the formation as a more defensive-minded 4-4-1-1, with Mane and Coutinho wide midfielders and Salah behind Firmino.
Whatever it was, it worked. They broke, with all four involved, as Mane slid the ball through to Salah, who switched it out to Firmino. The striker had time and space and rolled it across the area for Coutinho to side-foot back across goal and into the net.
Then they struck again – and again Spartak were culpable, as they lost possession on halfway with Mane sprinting into their area and crossing towards Salah. The ball was intercepted by Serdar Tasci – it may well have been another penalty as it struck the defender’s arm – but it rebounded to Firmino, who curled it first-time inside the far post with the outside of his right boot.
So the tie was finished. Liverpool had drawn 1-1 in Moscow in September, but Spartak were without Quincy Promes, their leading scorer, captain Denis Glushakov and the striker Ze Luis on that occasion, and although their record in Europe is modest, they had lost just one of their past 19 games in all competitions. However, any Klopp concerns had been quickly blown away.
Once more the quartet combined, with Coutinho playing an ‘around-the-corner’ pass to Firmino, who ferried it on for Salah, who flicked it out wide to allow Mane a clear run on goal. It was a glorious set-up – only for Mane to blast over… just as Salah did after wriggling free moments later.
Moreno’s replacement was James Milner, and such was Liverpool’s dominance that he popped up as a left-winger, not a left back, involving himself in three of the four second-half goals. Soon after the re-start they struck, with Coutinho pushing the ball out wide to Milner, who crossed for Mane to scissor a glorious, acrobatic right-footed volley high into the net.
Anfield erupted for that one and then, also, for Coutinho as he completed that hat-trick, collecting a short pass from Milner and driving his shot goalwards, with it ricocheting heavily off defender Salvatore Bocchetti and beyond the wrongfooted Selikhov. It was Liverpool’s first Champions League hat-trick for 10 years.
Mane claimed his second with Firmino’s replacement Daniel Sturridge pulling out wide right, from Salah’s pass, and unselfishly crossing low for Mane to stretch, as he stumbled, and side-foot home. Sturridge should have had a penalty when he was felled by Selikhov, and then the striker flicked the ball over under pressure.
Finally it was Salah who did score, with Milner alertly heading the ball back infield towards Sturridge, who smartly jumped over it. It ran to the Egyptian, who checked and fired high into the goal to complete the rout, the second time Liverpool have scored seven in Europe this season. It was some show of power.