Sunday 25 August 2019

Quick-fire Keita sends Liverpool on their way

Liverpool's Naby Keita scores his team's first goal. Photo: Getty Images
Liverpool's Naby Keita scores his team's first goal. Photo: Getty Images

Chris Bascombe

Jurgen Klopp is on course for a 100pc record as Liverpool manager. Every time he has led the club in Uefa competition they have reached the final. No wonder he calls this his dream team, even allowing for the nightmares endured when trying to overcome those final hurdles.

Now his side are on the verge of another European semi-final, goals from Naby Keita and Roberto Firmino giving Liverpool a formidable if not unassailable lead to take to Porto next week.

It was no formality, Porto's enterprising approach creating several opportunities for an away goal.

Liverpool, though, asserted their superiority when it mattered. There was a maturity to the victory contrasting it with the bedlam of these knockout games a year ago.

A European and domestic double to put Klopp on the same pedestal as Bob Paisley and Joe Fagan is what is at stake now.

Hype

Naby Keita of Liverpool celebrates with Roberto Firmino after scoring his team's first goal. Photo: Getty
Naby Keita of Liverpool celebrates with Roberto Firmino after scoring his team's first goal. Photo: Getty

Strangely, not too many are talking about the likelihood. Klopp will like that, but the lack of hype is not out of courtesy.

Few are convinced it is possible. Maybe they believe Europe is not enough of a priority. The evidence suggests otherwise.

It is not often a Champions League quarter-final is the second most important game of the week.

Klopp said his players are living only for the moment - thoughts of the pending meeting with Chelsea on hold - but he knew the mood around this year's European run vastly differs to a year ago.

Eder Militao of FC Porto is challenged by Mohamed Salah. Photo: Getty
Eder Militao of FC Porto is challenged by Mohamed Salah. Photo: Getty

"More enjoyable," was Klopp's observation. Less pressure? That sounds suspiciously like a psychological ploy, intended to relax his players.

The way his side started, it worked, Liverpool striking twice in the first 26 minutes and missing enough chances to leave Porto fearing a repeat of their mauling in the competition a year ago.

These nights used to summon memories from decades ago. Now the reference points go back 12 months.

It was not as boisterous as the quarter-final against Manchester City last season but the resemblance in the football was obvious.

Porto must have felt the scars of their 5-0 defeat, studying Klopp's side and wondering how to stop them. Their conclusion was to be as ambitious as any side visiting Anfield this season. They came to play.

But there is a fine line between ambitious and reckless and, when Keita and Firmino put Liverpool two up, it looked like Porto coach Sergio Conceicao had chosen the wrong strategy.

It made for an entertaining game, Liverpool facing a rare problem on their own turf in having to monitor numerous attacking threats, powerful runner Moussa Marega especially dangerous.

Yet the Porto defence was playing such a high line, they were virtually on the halfway line, ensuring the most basic ball over the top would exploit the pace of Mo Salah and Sadio Mane.

From the opening exchanges it seemed only a matter of time until Liverpool's chances followed.

James Milner chipped over the Porto defence in the 10th minute and after, Mane found Firmino, Keita's shot deflected off Oliver Torres, leaving Iker Casillas helpless. Not a work of beauty, but effective. That's two in two for Keita, finally delivering on his promise at a critical time.

So began one of those blitzes Anfield was so accustomed to a year ago. Salah could have scored twice.

First he volleyed directly at the keeper. Then he scuffed a 22nd-minute shot wide with only Casillas to beat.

Had he gone down under Felipe's challenge, the most likely outcome would have been a red card.

Inevitably, the second followed when Jordan Henderson demonstrated his playmaking abilities, his perfectly weighted pass to Trent Alexander-Arnold enabling the full-back to feed Firmino for a tap-in.

The prospect of a second leg formality was plausible, but Porto have talent. Alisson was twice called upon to deny Marega, and VAR spared Alexander-Arnold the concession of a penalty.

The incident showed Porto would not surrender, although they needed VAR on their side to prevent Mane volleying a third early in the second half, the effort ruled out for offside.

The second half was an exercise in Liverpool bringing order to a frantic game, while Porto were still willing to gamble.

It ensured Virgil van Dijk was again required to be at his most commanding and Dejan Lovren, recalled for Joel Matip, made an impressive return.

Had Marega had the finishing to match his pace and movement, Porto would have pulled one back when he was sent clear on 78 minutes, the striker slicing his effort over.

Telegraph.co.uk

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