Porto may not have recognised the entire Liverpool lineup but the feeling of deflation against Jürgen Klopp’s team was all too familiar. Klopp rested players, reinvigorated players and was rewarded with a fifth successive win that brought Liverpool their highest ever points tally in a Champions League group stage. He could not have wished for any more.
Thiago Alcântara opened the scoring with an immaculate strike before Mohamed Salah registered for the 17th time this season, and sixth time in the Champions League, as Liverpool continued to make light work of a group of European heavyweights.
Liverpool had earned the right to rotate with four straight wins in a supposedly complicated group – their strongest start to the Champions League group stage – and Klopp duly shifted Virgil van Dijk, Fabinho, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Diogo Jota to the substitutes’ bench. They were joined by Jordan Henderson, Andy Robertson and James Milner, all of whom are recovering from injury, while Thiago, Takumi Minamino and Ibrahima Konaté were given much-needed game time ahead of the intense winter schedule. The most notable inclusion was Tyler Morton, the 19-year-old central midfielder from Wallasey who impressed Klopp in pre-season, plus two Carabao Cup ties, and was handed his first Anfield start four days after a debut Premier League appearance against Arsenal. Some week.
The luxury of assessing or utilising 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, forcing a makeshift home defence into several errors.
Otávio engineered the first opening of a low-key first half when he dispossessed Liverpool left-back Kostas Tsimikas and swept a dangerous cross on to the head of Taremi. The Porto striker’s glancing effort struck Joël Matip on the chest 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 caught dawdling in possession by Otávio once again, this time Konaté in central midfield, and Díaz left Neco Williams trailing as he darted into the penalty area before squaring unselfishly across goal for his fellow winger. Otávio had only to hit the target but, under pressure from Tsimikas’s 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.
The hosts were helped by some wayward clearances by Costa in the Porto goal. First he slammed a routine clearance into Mané’s chest and was reprieved when Salah’s shot from the rebound lacked the power to beat the exposed keeper. Minutes later he drilled another clearance straight to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain but Salah was offside when played clean through by the midfielder’s pass.
Liverpool were denied the lead by a tight offside call when Thiago released Mané through a generous gap in the Porto defence shortly before the interval. Mané, making his 50th European appearance for Liverpool, had time and space to beat Costa with a measured finish into the far corner. The officials awarded the goal but the forward’s celebrations were eventually ruined by a VAR review.
Porto continued to threaten and undermine their good work with a poor final pass or decision. 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 arduous wait for a moment of genuine quality, and a welcome reminder of Thiago’s pedigree on only his fourth start of the season. Oxlade-Chamberlain’s free-kick from the right was headed clear by Otávio and Thiago 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 a long ball out of defence, backheeled into the path of Henderson. The substitute returned the ball inside to Salah, who swept inside Uribe and beat Costa at his near post with an emphatic finish.
Another Liverpool substitute, Divock Origi, also had an immediate impact when fouled by Chancel Mbemba on the edge of the area. Referee Felix Zwayer pointed to the penalty spot only for VAR to rule that the foul had occurred outside the area. Liverpool’s procession into the knockout phase carried on regardless.