Liverpool 4 - 0 Red Star
Liverpool: Firmino 21’, Salah 45’, 51’ (PEN), Mané 80’
In just about as comfortable a night as one can reasonably hope for in the Champions League, Liverpool score more than two goals for the first time in six games, methodically outclassing an increasingly thuggish Red Star side.
With Jordan Henderson ruled out, James Milner still recovering from his muscle injury two weeks ago, and Naby Keïta still missing, Jürgen Klopp opted for a rare formation change on Wednesday night, lining his side up in a 4-2-3-1, with Georginio Wijnaldum and Fabinho sitting in the double pivot, while Sadio Mané, Roberto Firmino and Xherdan Shaqiri supported central striker Mohamed Salah.
The German manager had brought his firepower, in other words, looking to take charge of Group C with a big home win. The visitors were disinterested in contributing to this narrative, however, and in the early going pushed up the pitch and played through the Liverpool lines in a series of slick passing moves.
They nearly made it count too, as Srđan Babić got on the end of an Ebecilio cross in the Reds area on 15 minutes, but the defender’s unconvincing finish flew high over Alisson’s crossbar. Before that, Salah had gone close at the other end, picking a looping Shaqiri through ball out of the sky with an outstanding first touch, but Milan Borjan did well to come off his line and smother the Egyptian’s shot.
Following Babić’s chance, though, the home side took control of the game, as their newly composed midfield duo figured out their spacing, and the front four began stringing together impressive passing moves. The Reds fired a warning shot when Fabinho broke forward and combined with Salah, but the Egyptian got turned around when receiving the ball back and was unable to get a shot off.
Barely a minute later, the hosts took the lead, and it was orchestrated by the impressive Shaqiri. Hustling across the pitch from his spot on the right wing, the Swiss attacker won the ball off an opponent, played a one-two, and slid a perfect through ball into the path of the overlapping Andrew Robertson. The Scottish fullback cut his pass back to Firmino on the penalty spot, and after taking a touch to set himself, the Brazilian drilled the ball home off a slight deflection. It was an excellent team move, and indicative of what was to come.
Five minutes later, a counter saw Robertson spring Mané down the flank, but while the Senegalese forward’s cross found Salah in the box, the striker was unable to make a good connection, and his effort rolled well wide. The trio combined again a minute later, this time setting Robertson up for the cross, but his first time effort curved away from the run of Salah, and the chance went begging.
On the half hour, an obscene backheel flick from Mané found Salah in the area, but Borjan was again on hand to smother the shot at the Egyptian’s feet. The linesman had raised his flag on a narrow offside call, however, sparing Salah’s blushes.
Andy Robertson was a marauding force on the hosts’ left hand side, and popped up by the touchline once more on 35 minutes, played in by Bobby Firmino, but the Scot was unable to wrap his foot around the ball and his cross flew over the crossbar. After another sweeping move involving Shaqiri, Salah and Mané, the fullback again found himself in the box with the ball at his feet. Correctly opting for the shot this time, the 24-year old sliced his effort wide of Borjan’s far post.
The Reds’ profligacy made little difference in the end, though, and just as regulation time ran out in the first frame, they doubled their lead. Winning the ball and breaking forward, Wijnaldum played it into Shaqiri, whose right-footed first touch was a perfect layoff to the onrushing Salah. Last season’s 44-goal man hammered home with his right peg, and Liverpool were cruising into the break.
The second half began with more of the same, and a three-minute period of pressure and close calls ended with Fabinho slicing a 20-yard effort well wide. The Reds would get their third only a minute later, however, and somewhat fortuitously. Sadio Mané went down under the challenge of Filip Stojković, and the touchline assistant adjudged the fullback to have used his elbow to stop the Liverpool forward. It was a soft call, the sort you’d never see given at Anfield in the Premier League, but Salah cared not, and blasted the spot kick home, taking his tally on the season to six.
Five minutes later, Fabinho showed off his secondary skillset — sweeping diagonal passes — finding Alexander-Arnold with a beauty over the top. The young fullback’s volleyed finish did not outmaneuver Borjan, however, and the goalkeeper picked the chip out the air.
The game well in hand, the Reds downshifted, passing the ball around at will, but not turning up the tempo or pushing forward in numbers that would leave them at risk on a potential counter. Adam Lallana replaced the impressive Shaqiri, before Salah left t.he pitch for Daniel Sturridge.
Fifteen minutes from time, the hosts were given their second dubious penalty of the night, this time as an unlucky Ben Nabouhane headed a clearance onto his own hand. Surprisingly, Sadio Mané — who has scored one penalty in his career — stepped up instead of the reliable Fabinho. Borjan did well to push the former Southampton man’s effort onto the bar, and Mané was unable to connect sufficiently with the rebound to make it count.
The effort — and the introduction of Sturridge — breathed some new life into the Reds, however, and they mounted a late surge of pressure on an increasingly frustrated and dirty Red Star side. Wijnaldum broke forward once again, this time finding Sturridge, who slid the ball across the box for Mané. The attacker made up for his penalty miss, and despite his first touch taking the ball away from him, Mané displayed enough agility to reach and toe poke the ball under the onrushing goalkeeper.
A minute later, Sturridge turned provider once again, dropping deep and turning, before playing a gorgeous ball into the path of Lallana. A poor first touch and lack of speed saw the Englishman caught by two defenders before he reached the goalkeeper, though, and Borjan collected the finish with ease.
Sturridge was hungry for his fifth goal of the campaign, and was behind a trio of chances as time ran out; first stinging the hands of Borjan with a 30-yard effort on the 90 minute mark, then playing in Mané, only for the Senegalese attacker to smash his shot into the side netting a minute later, before the former Chelsea man finished the night by cutting inside and driving a final attempt straight at the goalkeeper.
With Paris Saint-Germain and Napoli drawing 2-2 in France, Liverpool retake the lead in Group C, and will look to further increase the gap when they travel to Belgrade in two weeks time, putting themselves in as strong of a position as possible ahead of their return legs with their French and Italian rivals.
Meanwhile, there remains the not insignificant challenge of keeping up with Manchester City back in the Premier League, and a Saturday visit from 17th placed Cardiff is up next.