Thursday 23 May 2019

Liverpool stroll into last eight after long journey back to top table

Liverpool 0 FC Porto 0

Danny Ings
Danny Ings

Sam Wallace

It has been nine years since a Liverpool team reached the last eight of the Champions League and, as a memorable decade in Europe was coming to a close, the road back under four managers has been a long one indeed.

Jurgen Klopp's side have finally arrived, although this was not one of those remarkable European nights, or certainly nothing like the corresponding game in 2009 when they beat Real Madrid by four goals at Anfield to complete another 5-0 aggregate win to book a quarter-final against Chelsea.

The hard work had already been done in Portugal and they were up against a Porto team that did not know whether to sit back or attack and ended up doing neither.

The visit to Manchester United on Saturday loomed over this tie, and it was only in the closing stages that Klopp decided to raise the stakes, sending on Danny Ings for just his seventh appearance of the season after that long recovery from a second knee injury, and then later Mohamed Salah.

There was not the intensity we have come to expect from Klopp's team this season because the occasion simply did not demand it.

Nine years ago Liverpool went out in the quarter-finals to Chelsea, but not after they had gone within a goal of going through in a famous comeback at Stamford Bridge when the home team had eventually equalised to make the score 4-4 on the night.

Liverpool's James Milner in action with Porto's Jesus Corona. Photo: Andrew Yates/Reuters
Liverpool's James Milner in action with Porto's Jesus Corona. Photo: Andrew Yates/Reuters

One year later Rafael Benitez was gone, the current owners Fenway Sports Group took over and, aside from one Premier League title near-miss, it feels like the rebuilding has been a process that has taken the club to this point and this manager.

If they win at Old Trafford, Klopp's team can go second in the league - where they finished in that 2008-2009 season in which they last reached the Champions League quarter-finals. No one will catch Manchester City this season, but in the Champions League, Klopp's side remain a dangerous proposition, whose quality at that stage of the competition cannot be dismissed.

They have demolished the leaders of the Portuguese league, who had never really been in this tie at any stage.

Read more: Klopp insists Reds belong at business end of Euro battle

For Ings, there was a chance after the 88th minute that he strained to get a head to in front of the Kop and forced a fine save from Iker Casillas - a goal that would have been reward for a committed substitute's performance.

In terms of Klopp's strikers, he has leapt ahead of Dominic Solanke, and the departed Daniel Sturridge, and looks ready for his chance if injury presents one. Since that 5-0 first-leg defeat, Sergio Conceicao's team had racked up 15 goals in four straight league wins in a Primeira Liga campaign in which they remain undefeated at the top of the table.

Liverpool's Jordan Henderson in action with Porto's Oliver Torres. Photo: Andrew Yates/Reuters
Liverpool's Jordan Henderson in action with Porto's Oliver Torres. Photo: Andrew Yates/Reuters

If they had a plan to overturn the deficit from the first leg then they were certainly taking their time.

There had been no goals by half-time and no attempts on target by either team, too, although Sadio Mane had struck a right-footed shot against the inside of Casillas' post after 32 minutes.

Liverpool had dominated the possession with the away team coming to meet them at the halfway line to press in the early stages, but were also prepared to let Klopp's side have the ball.

Klopp made five changes from the team that beat Newcastle United last Saturday including Salah and Virgil van Dijk, stood down for places on the bench.

It was only Adam Lallana's third start of the season and, after those two spells injured, it would be right to say that the Englishman looks understandably off the pace and will do for some time until he gets a run in the team.

That is not a simple proposition given how well Klopp's side are playing, and even with a five-goal advantage, he did not leave out Roberto Firmino or Mane.

They were not as fluent as they might have been expected had Salah been in the side and Porto's reluctance to come out did not help matters, although the longer it went on, the more absurd that strategy seemed for the Portuguese team.

No-one expected a comeback, but a little bit of risk on Porto's part in the first half would have made it more of a spectacle. Their Cameroon international striker Vincent Aboubakar worked a lonely shift in attack and there was there was a feeling of anxiety around Anfield on this occasion, that can sometimes contribute to mistakes on nights such as these.

By the end of the game, with Ings and Salah on the pitch, Liverpool were pushing hard for a winner.

Liverpool had not failed to score at home since the draw with West Bromwich Albion on December 13, and before that it was that infamous draw with United at Anfield.

It is hard to imagine the same outcome on Saturday with so much at stake, but for a place in the Champions League quarter-finals, this was quite enough. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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