Liverpool had to weather an early storm, but eventually strolled through to the Champions League semi-finals after beating Porto 4-1 at the Dragao.
Porto 1-4 Liverpool (1-6 agg)
Champions League Quarter-Final Second Leg, Estadio do Drago
April 17, 2019
Goals: Militao 68′; Mane 24′, Salah 65′, Firmino 77′, Van Dijk 84′
Up the VAR
Did any celebrate at home when Mane stabbed it over the line? The players on the pitch didn’t, the fans didn’t seem to in the stadium—so quickly was the flag up.
But guess what: he wasn’t offside! VAR took a minute or two to decide and it still didn’t seem as though there was much expectation of a goal being given…no doubt due in part to the fact viewers weren’t even shown replays while waiting.
Everyone loves a good hundred seconds staring at a ref pressing his ear, right?
Confusion aside, the Porto fans didn’t appreciate it effectively ending their run in the Champions League; ironically, given their late passage through past Roma thanks to the same ruling giving them a late penalty.
It was, of course, the right decision in the end.
Liverpool had needed to hold at bay a fearsome Porto start to the match before that goal, so the strike completely changed the flow and the threat of the night.
Super Sadio, key man from the start
His goal might not have been celebrated as exuberantly as usual, but it was yet another strike for the No. 10 in an exceptional season.
It means he has scored in every round of the Champions League for the past two seasons, a quite incredible feat, and he has scored away from home in both knock-out rounds in this year’s competition.
More recently, in eight of the last 10 games the Reds have taken the lead in, Mane has been the one who scored the opening goal—highlighting not just his quality but his reliability and ability to harness the big moments which matter.
Mane is now also the joint-highest scorer of all time for Liverpool in the Champions League/European Cup; his 14 strikes is level with Ian Rush and behind only Steven Gerrard.
Two of Liverpool’s three changes came in the centre of the park, as weekend substitutes Gini Wijnaldum and James Milner came back into the 11.
Bringing the fresh legs into the centre was no doubt the right idea in theory, but they were completely overrun instead—or perhaps bypassed is the better description.
Porto went direct, over the top or in behind, leaving the Reds’ trio simply running backward and forward without getting anywhere: no real pressure on the ball, no chance to string passes together, not stopping the Porto attack.
Wijnaldum and Milner were largely missing in action for the entire first half, with tactics and the way the game developed not allowing them to get a foothold.
Given the recent form of Naby Keita and Jordan Henderson—who was again excellent when he came on—it’s fair to say neither No. 5 nor No. 7 staked a big claim to regain a first-choice spot in the team.
Klopp made a change at the break: Roberto Firmino for Divock Origi. It looks like-for-like, though was anything but.
It altered the shape of the team, the tempo of build-up play, the quality of link play and the final-third threat; while highlighting the gulf in class between the two players, it was also the tactical nous of the boss which swung the 90 minutes back in the Reds’ favour.
A midfield quartet was employed, alternately in a diamond and in a narrow, flatter four, and it stopped the Porto movement through the lines.
Not only that, but Firmino, playing as a second striker, was able to set Salah free ahead of him a number of times, link with the greater numbers in midfield and get himself into the box.
The Brazilian’s influence was immense and his late goal fully deserved.
Two other points: it showed a tactical flexibility from the Reds’ midfield not too often seen, perhaps one which should be employed more often. And secondly, that there is still a big upgrade needed in attack.
This won’t be headline news for Liverpool fans who have been watching for the past two years, but this is a great team.
This Liverpool team can beat Barcelona. And if they do, it’s Ajax or Tottenham, not Juventus or Man City, who will make the final.
Two huge ties lie ahead, against the team with the greatest player on the planet in their ranks—as well as Anfield returns for Philippe Coutinho and Luis Suarez.
But first, the other chase remains on: we’ve done the hard work, beating Southampton, Tottenham, Chelsea.
Now the focus has to be on equally impressive, telling and determined performances against much smaller teams, initially with relegation facing them in Cardiff.
This Liverpool team are capable of winning both types of games, both types of trophies. Now go do it.