Living up to Jürgen Klopp’s billing that his players would take the game seriously, the Reds cruise into the next stage of the Champions League, picking up only their third scoreless draw of the season.
If Klopp’s squad selection — rotating half of his outfield players from the weekend’s win at Newcastle, including goal machine Mohamed Salah — didn’t do enough to indicate that both teams likely knew where this game was headed, his opposite number’s ten changes certainly drove the point home. Deciding that discretion is the better part of valour, Sergio Conceicao set his side up conservatively, avoiding a cricket score at the expense of Porto never really looking like they believed they could overcome the first-leg deficit.
The opening twenty minutes were dull, dull, dull. A couple of attempts at through balls from the visitors represented the entirety of the entertainment up until Joe Gomez found himself in space down the right. The 20-year old whipped in a cross, but Roberto Firmino could only get a lock of hair on the ball at the near post, and Sadio Mané’s acrobatic toe poke saw the ball sailing over the bar from six yards out.
With Porto compressing their midfield into the centre of the park, there was space to be found on the flanks, and ten minutes later, Adam Lallana was the man on the ball, again aiming for Firmino, and again missing the Brazilian’s head by a matter of inches.
On the half hour, James Milner delivered a gorgeous chip over the top for Mané, and while the Senegalese attacker’s first touch was sublime, his half-volleyed effort — beating Iker Casillas — bounced back off the far post. Milner — top goal creator in the 2017/18 Champions League — took the role of architect once again a few minutes later, but Dejan Lovren could only head the Englishman’s set piece delivery over the top of the Porto bar.
That was it for the first half, really, with the traveling fans producing more exuberance than the players on either side.
There wasn’t that much to say about the second half either, but at least the Reds started off a little more aggressively. Switching the ball to the opposite flank after a period of possession, Emre Can found Alberto Moreno, who slipped the ball into the path of an overlapping Lallana. The former Southampton man found Milner 12 yards out, but the master creator sliced his effort well wide of the target.
Five minutes into the frame, Majeed Waris produced the game’s first shot on target, forcing a comfortable save from Loris Karius after winning the ball in the Liverpool half and taking a potshot from 20 yards out. On the hour mark, a delightful bit of ticky-tacky — that’s English for Tiki-Taka — between Jordan Henderson and Milner saw the pair slicing through the Porto press, before the captain released Firmino with an slide-rule pass down the centre channel. The 22-goal man was thwarted, however, by an absolutely sensational piece of play from the visitors’ captain, Felipe, whose sliding block was just about the most impressive single thing Anfield witnessed on the night.
With the quarter finals well in hand, thirty minutes to go, and an eye on the upcoming trip to Old Trafford on Saturday, Klopp began making changes. Firmino was replaced by Danny Ings, who immediately produced a header at goal from a Henderson deep cross, but Casillas barely had to lift his hands to catch the ball.
Mohamed Salah replaced Mané, and injected some energy into proceedings, crossing the ball for Milner, but again, the header failed to go either side of the Porto goalkeeper. As Klavan replaced Can with ten minutes to go, signaling that the Reds would practice their three-man defense for a bit, there was a flurry of activity in both goalmouths.
First Moreno slid a ball through for Salah, but the Egyptian goal machine’s effort from a narrow angle was comfortably handled by Casillas. Then, some trademark set-piece shenanigans saw a low Porto cross slice through the entire Reds backline, allowing Jesus Corona a shot at goal, but Dejan Lovren did well to block the Mexican’s effort from six yards.
Finally, with time running out, a gorgeous far-post cross from Salah found an unmarked Ings, and while this effort at least forced Casillas’ feet to leave the ground, the Spanish legend never looked troubled.
There was only ever two ways this game could go — either Porto have a proper go and we get anything from 3-4 to 7-0, or everybody accepts that the tie is over and see out a 0-0 draw. We got the latter, and while undeniably dull, it was nice for a fan base that has become all too familiar with stressful dramatics, to experience something kinda boring and not frustrating.
Not much to be said about individual performances in this one. Everything took place at something like half speed, and with Manchester United looming in the immediate distance, one can understand that players are saving their legs somewhat. The battle for second place is up next, before the draw for the quarter finals takes place next Friday, with both events certain to set red hearts racing.