Shaqiri adds something different as Reds' attack shines again
Liverpool 4 Red Star Belgrade 0
Liverpool have transitioned from being an irresistible attacking force that everyone thinks they have nevertheless figured out, to an indefinable team that wins but does not dazzle and instead is beginning to be appreciated for its defensive fortitude.
This, then, contrasted with any of their victories since the opening day of the season when West Ham were confidently dispatched by the same scoreline and with the sort of swagger and conviction that saw other opponents go exactly the same way last season.
The difference for Liverpool here was Xherdan Shaqiri, a cunning presence in their forward line, a winger whose movement from a right-sided position as well as his ability to weight passes perfectly made it easier for his team-mates to deliver what was necessary when it mattered.
With Shaqiri, Liverpool's was a front four. The outcome was the most fluid combination between the other three since AS Roma were beaten on this ground in May, reminding too how much Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's thrust has been missed since that night, a player whose intent compensated for the loss of Philippe Coutinho.
Shaqiri assisted Mohamed Salah when Liverpool went to Huddersfield and won narrowly on Saturday and his service was crucial here too, securing a 2-0 half-time lead.
Salah would end up scoring twice to break the Liverpool record for reaching 50 goals in just 65 games, as he looks to be getting back to his best.
He looked stressed out earlier in the season but in the last two games, there has been a freer spiritedness in his play and he has delivered successive top-class performances.
In midfield, meanwhile, Fabinho - making his full debut - also impressed, his influence becoming more controlled and dominant as Liverpool's goals flew in.
Context, however, is required. A lot of the focus this week has been on Red Star's glorious past, one that included a victory here at Anfield which proved to be Bill Shankly's last game in Europe as Liverpool manager and prompted his successor Bob Paisley to approach future fixtures against continental opponents in a slightly more cynical way, an approach that helped them become European champions three years later.
Liverpool's match-day programme included a feature centring on 1991, when Red Star became European champions a month or so before Yugoslavia plunged into civil war, a moment which caused the last of the great Balkan teams to break up.
Though Red Star have played in the Champions League seven times since 2000, this is the first season where they have progressed to the group stages. They arrived on Merseyside under the cloud of a police investigation which aims to establish whether their 6-1 defeat earlier this month to Paris-Saint Germain was a fix.
Though some fans had travelled with them, making their voices heard in Liverpool's city centre throughout the course of yesterday afternoon, and a handful did make it into the Centenary Stand with pockets elsewhere, none were actually meant to be inside the stadium after the club was sanctioned by Uefa for pitch invasions during their 2-2 draw at Red Bull Salzburg in the play-offs.
Jurgen Klopp had identified that the challenge for Red Star would principally be a mental one, in accepting they might have to curb the offensive instincts which has seen them take control of the Serbian Super Liga where they lead the rest of the competition having scored 33 goals in just 12 games, dropping just two points in the process.
Shaqiri was a surprise source for Liverpool's opener in the 20th minute, not because of the glorious pass which rendered the presence of two Red Star defenders futile, but because he had chased back in the first instance; winning possession from the visiting team's captain Flip Stojkovic.
From there, Andy Robertson found Roberto Firmino with a cross that was just behind him but the Brazilian was able to manoeuvre himself into a position of a shooting opportunity and swiftly, it became 1-0.
Red Star had done a decent job of nullifying Liverpool until that point but suddenly they were less convincing.
Their lead was extended by Salah two minutes before half-time. Again, Shaqiri was involved, caressing a light touch into his path.
If it felt like Red Star's chances were over, the suspicions were confirmed six minutes after the break when Stojkovic conceded a penalty after one of the referee's additional assistants controversially judged that he had impeded Sadio Mane's run having sent him sprawling with his arm.
This gave Salah the chance to score again from the penalty spot and he would make no mistake, unlike Mane who was later presented with the same chance from 12 yards after a round of substitutions that included Salah. Daniel Sturridge had wanted to take that one but his frustration subsided as soon he fed Mane for a goal he probably deserved.
Liverpool are on a roll. It might not be the sort of roll you expect and it might be underwhelming but it is nevertheless a roll. (© Independent News Service)