In a group of European heavyweights only Liverpool ultimately lived up to the billing. Jürgen Klopp’s makeshift team made light work of Milan, just as more recognisable units had done to Atlético Madrid and Porto, as Liverpool became the first English club to win all six games in a Champions League group stage.
Mohamed Salah added to his extensive collection of milestones as Liverpool came from behind to beat the Italian giants with something to spare. So much to spare, in fact, that Klopp gave the 18-year-old academy graduates Conor Bradley and Max Woltman late cameos to cherish at San Siro. Divock Origi, the “legend” as his manager likes to describe him, secured the clean sweep with a second-half header.
Milan were left with plenty to regret. They began the night in second place in Group B and finished bottom of the table and out of European competition completely following a flat and incredibly tame display.
Even with nothing at stake Liverpool managed to send an ominous message to their Champions League rivals. Klopp made eight changes from the side that started Saturday’s dramatic win at Wolves, gave 19-year-old midfielder Tyler Morton his third Liverpool start, overhauled the back four completely and gave Virgil van Dijk, Jordan Henderson, Diogo Jota plus Thiago Alcântara the night off. Yet there remained world class quality in attack with Salah and Sadio Mané and Liverpool, for all the disruption, enjoyed a comfortable run-out at San Siro against the leaders of Serie A.
Milan’s first-half performance was mystifying. Stefano Pioli and his players knew victory would guarantee European football in 2022 and a place in the last 16 of the Champions League should Porto fail to beat Atlético Madrid at home. The incentive appeared lost on a strangely passive, slow Milan side who seemed content to sit off Liverpool and allow them possession, or unable to keep it from a makeshift opponent for any length of time. They did take the lead, in fairness, following their first purposeful break although that owed more to slack defending from Takumi Minamino than Milan’s strengths.
Ibrahima Konaté did well to force Zlatan Ibrahimovic out wide and concede a corner when the 40-year-old superstar had been found in space inside the Liverpool area by Sandro Tonali. Junior Messias took the resulting set-piece, poorly as it transpired, drilling it low towards the near post where no Milan player was lurking. Minamino, however, completely missed his attempted clearance and Alisson was forced into evasive action as the ball flew at him. He could only parry it into the path of Fikayo Tomori and the former Chelsea defender, reacting quicker than Origi, made no mistake from close range.
Liverpool responded sharply. Origi tested Mike Maignan in the Milan goal after weaving his way through a crowd of Milan defenders. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, a driving presence in midfield, then beat Franck Kessié with ease before sending a dipping right-foot shot towards goal. Maignan blocked, but only as far as Salah, who steered an awkward finish into the roof of the net for his 20th goal of a remarkable individual season.
In doing so, Salah became the first Liverpool player since Ian Rush to reach the 20-goal mark in five successive seasons and the fourth in total. He also became the first Liverpool player to score seven goals in a European group stage.
There was no great urgency from Milan after the restart either. Even their hopeful appeals for a penalty when Kessié went down too easily under a challenge from Kostas Tsimikas lacked conviction. The referee, Danny Makkelie, was unimpressed and unmoved.
Liverpool took full advantage of the hosts’ lethargy when taking the lead through Saturday’s match-winner, Origi. Tomori added an unwanted assist to his night’s work when letting a routine pass from Kessié slide under his foot and into the path of Mané. The striker, breaking through on the left, forced Maignan into a one-handed save from the angle but the goalkeeper’s punch sailed towards the Belgium international, who sent a well-placed header looping into the far corner.
Liverpool were more incisive, sharper on the ball and dangerous throughout. Klopp made full use of his team’s superiority by giving Naby Keïta and Joe Gomez a run-out after respective injury lay-offs. Pioli rang the changes, too, in an attempt to ignite the Milan performance but, when his players did venture near the away side’s penalty area, Nat Phillips and Konaté routinely extinguished their hopes. Phillips, instrumental in Liverpool qualifying for the competition, enjoyed a confident first start of the season and kept Ibrahimovic quiet.
Kessié was presented with an excellent chance to level five minutes from time when played clean through by substitute Tiémoué Bakayako. Alisson saved his attempted chip at close range and Liverpool’s 100% record in the process.