Nothing can disrupt Liverpool’s procession through a group of European heavyweights. Jürgen Klopp rested, re-energised and recuperated players against Porto and was rewarded with a fifth successive victory that yielded the club’s highest ever points tally in the Champions League group phase. He could not have wished for more.
Tyler Morton, at 19, started for the first time at Anfield and was the embodiment of composure in central midfield. Thiago Alcântara illuminated the night with a stunning opening goal while Mohamed Salah produced another moment of individual brilliance to score his 17th goal in 17 games this season. Those are the bullet points, but there was plenty for Klopp to savour.
Thiago, Takumi Minamino, Ibrahima Konaté and Neco Williams all gained valuable game time ahead of an intense winter schedule. Jordan Henderson, Andy Robertson and James Milner all appeared from the bench following injury. Virgil van Dijk, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Diogo Jota all got the night off. The Liverpool lineup looked different to Porto but they were left with a familiar sense of deflation in the company of Klopp’s players.
“We have moments when we are not cool to play against,” the Liverpool manager said. “I didn’t expect that tonight to be honest because we changed decisive things and had to grow into the game. We had a lot of things to think about: who was coming back from injury, who has played a lot of games, who needs resting. It worked out really well.”
The luxury of managing resources was not available to Sérgio Conceição. With one point separating his Porto team from Atlético Madrid at kick-off, and the Spanish champions visiting Estádio do Dragão for the final game, their incentive exceeded avenging September’s 5-1 home thumping by Liverpool. The visitors started brightly with the pace of Luis Díaz on the left and creativity of Otávio on the right, allied to the aerial strength of Mehdi Taremi, unsettling a makeshift home defence. Their good work was constantly undermined by a poor finish, final ball or decision, however, and Porto will finish their campaign in a three-way fight for second place with Atlético and Milan. Diego Simeone may be sweating on Liverpool’s outcome at the San Siro.
Otávio engineered the first opening of a low-key first half when he dispossessed Kostas Tsimikas and swept a dangerous cross on to the head of Taremi. The Porto striker’s glancing effort struck Joël Matip and sailed beyond a wrong-footed Alisson but also wide of the post. That let-off paled in comparison to Porto’s next opportunity. Liverpool were again caught dawdling in possession by Otávio, this time Konaté in central midfield, and Díaz left Williams trailing as he darted into the penalty area before squaring unselfishly for his fellow winger. Otávio had only to hit the target but, under pressure from Tsimikas’ challenge from behind, side-footed wastefully wide to the disbelief of his teammates and the Porto bench. He spent the next few minutes rolling around in apparent agony waiting for a VAR penalty decision that never came. His pain was more likely internal, and self-inflicted.
Porto lost veteran defender Pepe to injury shortly after Liverpool’s first real threat on goal, Konaté sending a free header from Minamino’s corner straight at Diogo Costa, and the threat from Klopp’s team gradually improved as Salah and Sadio Mané came into the contest. Mané was denied a goal on his 50th European appearance for Liverpool by VAR, that ruled him marginally offside when receiving Thiago’s pass and racing through to beat Costa with ease.
Taremi had only Alisson to beat when played through by Otávio’s clever ball but opted to square to no-one in particular, allowing Morton to mop up the danger with a timely interception. Mateus Uribe shot narrowly wide on the turn after a Díaz free-kick caused havoc inside the Liverpool area while Otávio squandered an excellent chance to find Evanilson in front of an empty goal following a stray clearance by Alisson.
The breakthrough was worth the wait for a moment of genuine quality, and a vivid demonstration of Thiago’s pedigree on only his fourth start of the season. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s free-kick was headed clear by Otávio and the Spain international sensed danger instantly, moving in and connecting sweetly to drive a 20-yard shot through the legs of Fábio Cardoso and into the bottom corner.
Liverpool doubled their advantage when Salah, rolling Porto left-back Zaidu Sanusi with ease as they pursued Morton’s long ball out of defence, backheeled into the path of Henderson. The substitute returned the ball inside to Salah, who swept inside Mateus Uribe and beat Costa at his near post with an emphatic finish.
“Whoever sees Thiago in training knows he has the technique to do it but it doesn’t happen constantly,” said Klopp. “It was a thunderball, a great goal. We needed some luck, they came through and had some big chances but didn’t score, and we scored twice and controlled the second half.”