By Richard Buxton, Special to Sportsnet
LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND – Dining at European football’s top table again has long been Liverpool’s raison d’etre – and now, they can finally pull up a chair.
Jurgen Klopp’s side did not merely scrape into the Champions League’s knockout phase, they swaggered to it with a resounding 7-0 hammering of Spartak Moscow on Wednesday, a feat that represents a significant turning point and has been almost eight years in the making. When the Champions League resumes in February, it will be a first time since 2009 that Liverpool have reached the knockout round of the Champions League, with only bruising early exits to show from their two group campaigns across the intervening years.
Rarely before have they reached the Round of 16 the easy way. Fine margins have played a part in their most iconic European moments, where late strikes were regularly required to tip the balance of power back in their favour.
UEFA’s decision to abolish the goal difference rule in their flagship competition’s group stages has denied Anfield the chance to enjoy such breathless, knife-edge moments as St Etienne in 1977 and Olympiakos in 2004. Perhaps it is for the best. When the current crop is performing at a level which will rank as the most prolific in the club’s history, tension would be a genuine inconvenience.
Clinching the chance to qualify for Europe’s elite club competition led to scenes of delirium here on the final day of the Premier League campaign just seven months ago. Even before their lengthy track record in this competition is recounted, Liverpool know how valuable a commodity it remains. Players able to ply their trade in the Champions League’s latter stages are more inclined to consider Anfield a future destination – or, in the case of Wednesday’s hat-trick hero and stand-in captain Philiippe Coutinho, a reason to stay there.
Wintry nights on Merseyside may struggle to compare with the warmer climes of Barcelona, but it at least offers Liverpool further opportunity to make a compelling case why the coveted playmaker should remain a big fish in a moderately-sized pond rather than swimming against the tide in the presence of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and company.
Liverpool are no longer reliant on the abilities of a lone talisman. In Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino, Coutinho has a supporting cast which can finally supplement a level of cohesion that he desperately craved to join at the Nou Camp last summer. They have a quartet which is now equal to Barca’s own illustrious forward line in its potency, if not greater.
They are already on course to better the 110 goals scored when Brendan Rodgers took to Liverpool to within a whisker of the Premier League title in 2013-14. The seven scored against Spartak took their tally up to 69 in all competitions for the season. It was also the fourth time they had scored three goals in the opening 30 minutes of their Champions League campaign. Since a chastening defeat to Tottenham in October, they have now scored 32 times in nine games.
It is also why Coutinho’s value remains innumerable to Liverpool, with a direct hand in 15 goals from his last 11 appearances. He now also holds the distinction of being the club’s fastest-ever Champions League scorer at Anfield when, inside three minutes, he provided some early breathing space after Georgi Dzhikiya pulled down Salah as he attempted to meet the Brazilian’s cross. Coutinho made no mistake from the penalty spot.
Barely a quarter of an hour in, he locked horns with Aleksandr Selikhov again, first firing a curling effort which tested the Spartak goalkeeper before a flowing counter-attack between the ‘fab four’ combination of Mane, Salah and Firmino, whose cut-back allowed his compatriot to sweep home. The rest of his supporting cast would also find themselves on the score sheet in a rout which almost rivalled their 8-0 win over Besiktas in the same competition, a record which has now stood for over a decade.
Few have been able to out-score Liverpool in this year’s competition, with only Paris Saint-Germain currently able to boast superiority to Liverpool’s cumulative group stage tally of 23. Spartak never really stood a chance despite enjoying an unbeaten 12-match run in the Russian Premier League. Their most direct threats in Luiz Adriano and Quincy Promes struggled to end a win-less run on their continental travels which has now stretched to an 11th successive game.
Imbalance, however, remains Liverpool’s greatest weakness. For every exhibition of fluid, free-scoring football, it has been offset by needless and inexplicable capitulation. Infamously surrendering a three-goal lead in last month’s clash with Sevilla was a classic case, and Klopp’s reign has been littered with similar examples. It is why, in part, hopes of a Premier League title challenge have long disappeared before Manchester City’s runaway charges made an already improbable pursuit insurmountable for them as much as the rest of the chasing pack.
But Liverpool still have justifiable reasons to believe that this could still be ‘the year’ again in Europe. In 1981, they finished fifth in the table but still defeated Real Madrid to lift their third continental crown. It was a similar story in 2005 when Everton finished above them to claim the league’s final Champions League qualification spot, only for the Reds to throw a spanner in their local rivals’ works by winning the competition outright.
They currently have every reason to believe that history will repeat itself for a third time.
Richard Buxton is a UK-based writer and special correspondent for Sportsnet. He filed this report from Liverpool’s Anfield stadium.