Liverpool 5 Mané 25’, 53’, 85’, Salah 30’, Firmino 70’
In the pouring rain at the Estádio do Dragão, Jürgen Klopp’s Reds absolutely plastered their hosts, as Sadio Mané took centre stage in a stunning display of counter attacking football.
It all started relatively innocuously in Porto. Rumours of the match being called off due to the downpour of rain were dismissed, and in the opening ten minutes, both sides seemed to be struggling in the difficult conditions. The home side nearly drew first blood, as an offsides Otávio was allowed to fire off a shot following some defensive shenanigans, but the Brazilian’s effort from twelve yards was blocked into the ground and over the bar by Dejan Lovren.
Twenty minutes had passed before the Reds put together a proper scoring chance against the Dragões aggressive press and high line, and as expected with that sort of defense, it was a big one. After Jordan Henderson won the ball off a sloppy goal kick, Roberto Firmino played Mohamed Salah in down the right-hand channel, but instead of taking the shot, the Egyptian looked for Mané at the back post, and the cross was blocked for a corner.
The visitors were finding their feet, however, and began to ramp up the pressure. Two minutes later, another break from midfield saw Andrew Robertson whip in a cross, but the ball grazed Firmino’s head six yards out and was cleared. The Brazilian was involved yet again on 25 minutes, picking out Mané down the left wing, but instead of crossing to a wide open Georginio Wijnaldum at the back post, the Senegalese attacker looked for the cutback, receiving an earful from Firmino for his decision.
It was one that would undoubtedly have followed the former Southampton man, were it not for, well everything that happened after that point. Immediately following the lost opportunity, a mazy Wijnaldum run ended with the Dutchman having a shot blocked. The rebound fell back to him, however, and he dinked it to his left for Mané. The 25-year old did not need to be asked twice, hitting a first time effort that slipped under goalkeeper José Sá’s arm and into the net. It was a bit of luck, but entirely deserved after a period of sustained pressure from the Reds.
Liverpool kept up the intensity, and five minutes later, they doubled their lead. James Milner won the ball right at the corner of the Porto box and jinked inside, bending a sweet, swerving effort towards the top corner, only to see it bounce back off the post. Mohamed Salah was alert, however, and pounced on the rebound, showing remarkable composure and control to flick the ball over the goalkeeper, control it with his head, and tuck it away past the man on the line from a few yards out.
Comfortable with their two away goals, the Reds began conserving their energy, sitting back a little more and holding onto the ball. They did so successfully until the final minute of the half, as a tremendous bit of interplay saw Tiquinho break into the Liverpool area, only for his side-footed effort to slide inches past Loris Karius’ post.
The second half began as the first had ended, with the hosts maintaining possession and controlling the pace of the game, and with a whole second leg yet to come, Porto were still cautious throwing men forward. When the hosts earned a free kick, however, they advanced up the pitch. As the second ball fell down in front of the Reds box, Mané battled for the ball and found Firmino coming to meet him. The Brazilian delivered his second gorgeous heel flick to Salah in four days and broke forward, received the ball at the top of the Porto box, and drove a left-footed effort at goal. Sá was equal to it, but could only palm the ball into the path of Mané who buried the rebound having sprinted the length of the pitch.
It took another ten minute for desperation to overtake the Portuguese league leaders, and with half the frame gone, Jesús Corona got in behind Robertson and battled his way past a whiffed tackle attempt by Virgil van Dijk, but the Mexican’s cross was blocked for a corner by Dejan Lovren. As the hosts began to push their fullbacks up the pitch, space opened up for the Reds, and twenty minutes from time, Firmino decided the tie. Sadio Mané won the ball in midfield, withstood a barrage of attempted tackles, and slipped the ball down the left for James Milner. The Englishman’s cutback found Liverpool’s only remaining Brazilian twelve yards out, slotting home his 21st goal of the season.
The air had gone out of the home side, and Joël Matip was brought on for Jordan Henderson, as Klopp saw an opportunity to practice the 5-2-3 formation that was an unsuccessful feature against Tottenham ten days ago. There was still time to get Mané a hat-trick, however, and after hacking a Robertson cross over the bar from ten yards, the Senegalese attacker took matters into his own hands, driving at goal and unleashing a fierce drive from 25 yards that left Sá reaching for air.
So. That’s job done, really. For all their fragility — real and perceived — Liverpool aren’t going to concede five goals at Anfield to this Porto side, and while the home leg does have to be played, it gives Klopp some room to maneuver with regards to squad rotation and resting his most important players.
What a way to get it done, though! Sadio Mané, he of the sophomore slump — in which he has now scored or assisted every 115 minutes instead of every 116 minutes like last year — was absolutely unplayable, and every member of the tremendous three got on the scoresheet again, taking their total to 63 goals on the season. Jordan Henderson looked like the captain we remember so fondly from last year, and Wijnaldum sneakily had one of his most impressive display in a red shirt, combining craft and skill in a remarkable performance. Loris Karius made four saves.
Ten days and a trip to Marbella awaits, before the Reds host West Ham, Newcastle and Porto right in a row. Hopefully, the warm-weather break leaves the squad refreshed and maintaining their rhythm ahead of the league run-in and the next round of the Champions League.