Reds Pummel Porto In First-Leg
Liverpool ran away with a perfect result in the first-leg of their round of 16 tie. It looked like it may not be the Reds’ night after a weak start in what was a surprisingly conservative opening period from both sides. The first 15 minutes were blighted by sloppy, unimaginative passing from Liverpool and Porto looked to be more likely of creating something. Thankfully, the Reds took control after 20 minutes and never looked back from there. Sadio Mane opened the rout after Jose Sa spilt his shot over the line, and Mo Salah scored his 30th goal of the season five minutes later. Mane scored a simple tap-in after the break, followed by an excellent finish from Roberto Firmino before Mane completed his hat-trick. It was an outstanding night for all of the Reds, but everyone will be particularly pleased to see Mane finally recovering from his slump.
Loris Karius – 7: The German had virtually nothing to do in the first-half barring a few simple catches, but on the rare occasions he was called upon he did so with the same confidence he has shown in the last few fixtures.
Trent Alexander-Arnold – 9: Porto were letting all of the Liverpool players have plenty of time on the ball except for TAA. The youngster was relentlessly pressed but he never looked like faltering. He dealt with the dangerous Yacine Brahimi comfortably while also getting forward to support Salah, so much so that Brahimi was forced to venture into more central areas to avoid TAA and try to get into the game. It’s easy to forget sometimes that he is only 19 and playing out of position from his natural role as a central-midfielder.
Dejan Lovren – 8: The Croatian made a vital block early to deny Otavio the chance to put Porto up 1-0. He followed this with a lovely long pass to Mane to give him an opportunity to create a scoring chance. He also won the ball from Sa’s throw to begin the move for Liverpool’s first goal of the night. An excellent performance from a man who comes under regular criticism.
Virgil Van Dijk – 7: Van Dijk made his Champions League debut for Liverpool on a brillaint night all around for the Reds. He made a crucial touch to divert a shot from Tiquinho Soares late in the first-half but also made one woeful attempt at a tackle against Corona in the box. In the second-half, he made another critical block to again deny Soares immediately after Firmino’s goal, but aside from these incidences, he didn’t have much to do.
Andy Robertson – 8: Another player who made his Champions League debut on the night. Robbo put in some threatening crosses, including one for Firmino that was only stopped by an outstanding intervention from Ivan Marcano and another for Sadio Mane late in the second-half. His only error throughout occurred when he was too slow to release Mane on a counter-attack.
Jordan Henderson – 6: An unremarkable but tidy game from the Liverpool captain. He didn’t do anything wrong, but it is arguable that he needs to be doing more than merely sweeping up at the back and recycling possession to help influence the game.
Gini Wijnaldum – 8: This was Gini’s best game for months now as he found himself involved in everything at both ends of the pitch. He should’ve had an early goal when he made a great run, but Mane was unable to find him at the back post. Moments later he drove through several Porto players and then laid the ball off to Mane who bundled it past Sa.
James Milner – 9: Liverpool’s vice-captain assisted the second goal when he smashed the ball off the post from range where it, fortunately, fell to a calm Salah who tucked it into the back of the net. This was also Milner’s best game in a while as he was involved in the build-up for most of the goals and got direct assists for two of them.
Sadio Mane – 10 (Man of the Match): The out of sorts winger scored the first goal of a much-needed hat-trick only moments after failing to roll it to Wijnaldum for a certain tap -in. He swooped to score his second after Sa could only parry away Firmino’s low shot. His performance caught up with his goal tally in the second half, as demonstrated by some brilliant work in the build-up to Firmino’s goal and a screamer from outside the box. It is also worth noting that he also showed a marked improvement in his willingness and ability to drop back and assist Robertson at left-back when defending crosses.
Mo Salah – 9: The Egyptian magician showed remarkable composure and skill when he collected Milner’s rebound. He managed to take all the pace off the ball with his first touch, dink it over the ‘keeper with his second, head it forward with his third and finally directed the ball over the line with his fourth. He was a constant threat throughout the rest of the game as he shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
Roberto Firmino – 8: The Brazilian was relatively quiet in attack, but worked tirelessly for the team to help turn over possession. He was unable to get a good shot away on the break under pressure from two defenders, but Mane pounced on the rebound though to make it 3-0. His selfless toiling was duly rewarded with a goal of his own after some good link-up play with his teammates.
Joel Matip (on for Jordan Henderson – 74′) – N/A: Matip was again brought on as extra security to help see the game out, but Porto were already finished by that stage, and he had nothing at all to do.
Joe Gomez (on for Alexander-Arnold – 79′) – N/A: Gomez was also brought on to sure-up the defence, it was good to see him back so soon after his injury.
Danny Ings (on for Firmino – 79′) – N/A: It was a heart-warming sight to see Ings make his long-overdue Champions League debut after a nightmare run of injuries. Liverpool were well and truly in cruise control upon his introduction, although he still managed to pick up the assist for Mane’s third goal.
Unused Subs: Simon Mignolet, Alberto Moreno, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Adam Lallana
Jurgen Klopp – 9: After the third or fourth goals, Klopp probably should’ve taken the opportunity to give the likes of Firmino, Mane and Salah a well-earned rest and award players such as Solanke, Lallana and Ings crucial minutes. Substitutions aside though it was a virtually flawless night for Klopp and his men, a deserved reward for an outstanding performance and tactical implementation.
Mane Is Back
It had been coming for a many weeks now, but it’s still a massive relief that Mane has returned to form at such a crucial stage of the season. If he can maintain that sort of level for the rest of the season it’s not unreasonable to suggest that Liverpool can continue to climb the Premier League table and go far in the Champions League. This performance was a just reward for a player who has worked so hard over the last several games to try and regain momentum but was continually struck down by misfortune.
Improved Midfield Performance
Even though the Reds drew against Spurs and comfortably beat Southampton there was still concern over the noticeably toothless midfield. Both games feature fairly different combinations, and yet the same problems remained. The likes of Henderson, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Wijnaldum seemed incapable of controlling the midfield and struggled to impose themselves onto games. A much improved Milner and Wijnaldum against Porto was an encouraging sign that this combination, and perhaps with Can behind them, could be the one that finally addresses this ongoing issue.
Second-Leg a Dead Rubber
Of course, it’s never over until the final whistle, but you’d have to think that five away goals are more than enough to see the Reds through to the quarter-finals. With that in mind, hopefully Klopp will utilise this rare opportunity to rest certain players, in particular Mane, Salah and Firmino who will be expected to play every other game until the end of the season. Allowing them to recharge their batteries for the run in will have the added effect of allowing fringe players such as Solanke, Lallana, Ings or even Ben Woodburn extra minutes and experience that they otherwise wouldn’t have had. However, given his track record, Klopp will likely field a near full-strength team for the return leg regardless.
You’ll Never Walk Alone
Cieren O’Dea for Red Or Dead – Liverpool FC Football Blog – on 15/02/2018.