Porto 0 – Liverpool 5: Match Review & Analysis

Oh how we’ve all longed for nights like tonight. Roy Evans once said that Liverpool Football Club without European football is like a banquet without wine and we’ve been going tee-total for far too long. We’ve only qualified for the Champions League once since Rafa Benitez left his post as manager, with that ending in an immediate expulsion at the end of the group stage of the competition. We haven’t reached the knockout rounds since 2009, meaning that tonight really has been a long time coming. Nine long years to get to the point of competing in the tournament at the business end. Since then Benitez left the club to be replaced by the abomination that was Roy Hodgson, with that nasty Cockney bully getting short shrift in order for the King to sit back on his throne. Two cup finals weren’t enough to save Kenny Dalglish from the sands of time, however, and Brendan Rodgers arrived with fresh ideas and exciting football.

Our tilt at the title under the Northern Irishman might have ended in crushing disappointment, but it did put is back in Europe’s elite competition for the first time in half a decade. The loss of Luis Suarez mean that we didn’t have the firepower or confidence to stand toe-to-toe with Real Madrid, resulting in a swift exit into the Europa League. That’s the way it’s been far too often for Liverpool in the Premier League era – a run at the number one spot followed by self-destruction when we’ve missed out. Jürgen Klopp’s arrival at the club has been joined by a desire to create a team capable of properly establishing itself as one of England’s best teams, with the long-term aim being to consistently challenge at the top of the table. That started by finishing in the top four last season and tonight we got a chance to see just how his side would cope with the pressures of the knockout stage at European football’s top table. Porto weren’t the scariest team we could’ve drawn, but they hadn’t lost at home all season prior to kick-odd. So how did the match pan out?

The Perfect First-Half

If Jürgen Klopp could have scripted the first-half for our return to the Champions League then there’s not much he would have written differently. Perhaps he’d have omitted the chance that the hosts had right at the end of the forty-five minutes, but even that might have woken the players up a little bit and helped them to realise that they needed to remain focussed if they wanted to keep a clean sheet. Certainly he wouldn’t have complained about the two away goals that we racked up, given that they can be oh so important in European ties. That Sadio Mané scored one of them, considering his form of late, will also have pleased the German.

The match started much as you’d expect for a big European game, with the home side dominating the opening ten minutes or so before Liverpool managed to take hold of the tie and impose ourselves on it. We were able to grab the game by the scruff of the neck and slowly turn the screw on a Porto side that hasn’t lost at home all season. To paraphrase Klopp, though, they hadn’t played us. There was a decent bit of fortune for the opener, but you make your own luck as the saying goes. Sadio Mané put himself in a position where he could ask questions of the goalkeeper on a night when the conditions didn’t favour him. He obviously should’ve done better, but the rain made it slick and nasty and Mané hit it well.

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If Mané’s goal was fortunate then there was nothing of the sort for Mohamed Salah’s finish. The ball was won back well by James Milner and the midfielder struck a good shot, but the goal was all about the class of the King of Egypt. That he had the composure to do what he did in the Champions League is, frankly, unbelievable. Think about it – we went up against one of the sixteen best teams in Europe and he took a touch, headed it on and then slipped it into the back of the net. He’s a genuine sensation and if we can keep him for a couple of seasons then we really could go places. He’s developing a real understanding with Roberto Firmino and defences occupying the both of them is leaving room for Mané. It’s excellent.

It Wasn’t A Bad Second-Half Either

Jürgen Klopp will have been delighted with the first-half for all of the reasons that I’ve said, but the main one would unquestionably be that it set us up nicely to go into the second-half without the need to force the issue. We could soak up any pressure that Porto wanted to throw at us before hitting them on the break. At times, the tactics of Sérgio Conceição were slightly naive. He seemed to want his players to play the way that they do against teams in the Portuguese league, without realising that Liverpool are so much quicker to close down and pressure than their normal opposition would be. Make no mistake, though, Porto aren’t a poor team. They’re the finished second in the Primeira Liga last season and sit top of the division at the moment, two points clear of the defending champions Benfica and with a game in hand.

In the league Porto have conceded just ten goals. They conceded the same number in the Champions League group stage, meaning that Liverpool scored in one night a quarter of the goals they’ve conceded in the other two competitions put together. Tomorrow the press and opposition fans will paint them as a poor team, trying to put down this performance. Our supporters shouldn’t believe them – tonight was a very impressive game from the Liverpool team. Porto looked poor because we made that happen, not because they are poor. The manager got his tactics absolutely spot on and the players did their jobs to perfection, closing down the opposition and being absolutely ruthless in the final third. The first-half was good, but the second-half was all about the professionalism. We killed any hopes of them getting back into the game first and foremost before we killed any hopes of them getting back into the tie after that.

The Midfield Worked Well

I have said all season long that I don’t think there’s a place for James Milner in midfield against the top sides and that’s an opinion that I maintain. Against Manchester City I thought we fell apart towards the end of the match as a direct result of him coming on and not being able to get anywhere near the pace of the game. That doesn’t mean that there’s no place for him whatsoever, though, and I thought the midfield three worked really well today. It was the basis of everything good that we did, turning the ball over quickly when needed and taking the sting out of the game when the opportunity allowed. A very professional performance away in Europe.

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What makes that all the sweeter is that all three of those lads have their doubters. I’ve already mentioned Milner, but it’s also worth pointing out that neither the club captain nor Gini Wijnaldum have exactly got people queuing up to sing their praises. Yet two games in a row now Jordan Henderson has been brilliant, using the ball really intelligently and re-finding his passing range that seemed to go missing at the start of the season. His Dutch midfield partner, meanwhile, is often accused of being the invisible man in away performances. No such criticism can be levelled at him tonight, given that he completely dominated the middle of the park and ran his socks off when needed.

Before the game many people, myself included, felt that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain would have added more legs to the game than Milner. Yet the former Manchester City man offered the side a game intelligence that it hasn’t always demonstrated. He was unlucky not to score with the shot that led to Mo Salah’s goal, but then he was also lucky not to pick up at least one yellow card as the match progressed. Oxlade-Chamberlain could perhaps have been given a run out in the second-half when the manager decided to rest Henderson in order to manage his fitness, but Klopp seems determined to try out this back three system whenever possible. By that point the game was won and the tie itself was over as a contest, so it’s interesting that he didn’t think the former Arsenal man was the right option. Regardless, it was an impressive performance from a midfield that’s been found wanting at times.

No One Will Want To Face Us In The Quarter-Finals

I’m not getting cocky when I say that I think we’ll be in the quarter-finals, but it will take a collapse the likes of which we’ve never seen before for Porto to make it through this tie at our expense. With that in mind, I’m not sure there’s a team in Europe that will be thrilled to see our name drawn out of the hat in the draw for the next round. We have now scored more goals away from home than any other side in Europe’s top five leagues in all competitions, including our record of seven when we played Maribor. We have our vulnerabilities, obviously, but who doesn’t? Even Pep Guardiola and his (almost) all-conquering Manchester City side wouldn’t feel like they’d be certainties to progress if they knew that had to travel to Anfield.

As I mentioned before, there’ll be an exercise in the press and from opposition supporters to play down our win tonight, but those who know about football won’t be quick to buy it. We didn’t do anything at the Estádio do Dragão that we haven’t done countless times before this season, yet few teams have had the wherewithal to stop us. You show me a team that’s praying for our name to come out of the hat and I’ll show you a side that hasn’t been paying attention. Some Liverpool fans have, weirdly, decided that we’re not very good. The facts point at the exact opposite being the case and it’s about time that people started to believe it. We haven’t been in the knockout stages for nine years, but now we’re back in them just how far can we go?

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