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 lineups had of Atlético Madrid and Porto, as Liverpool became the first English team to win all six games in a Champions League group.
Mohamed Salah added to his extensive collection of milestones by registering his 20th goal of the season 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 his second winner in four days. Liverpool made a mockery of a supposedly troublesome group, finishing 11 points clear of the Spanish champions, 13 clear of the joint leaders of the Primeira Liga and 14 clear of the leaders of Serie A.
“I don’t feel pride a lot in football because I expect good things to happen, but that fills me with a lot of pride,” the Liverpool manager said of his team’s 100% record. “Not mainly because we won six games, but because we won this game and it was so good. We made changes but then the boys have to be confident enough to show how good they are and I saw a lot of good things tonight. The fact we won all six games is another chapter in the history of these wonderful players in the last few years.”
Milan were left with plenty to regret. They started the night second in Group B but finished bottom and out of European competition completely following a remarkably flat display.
Even with nothing at stake Liverpool sent an ominous message to their Champions League rivals. Klopp made eight changes from the side that started the dramatic win at Wolves on Saturday, gave the mature 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 night throughout.
Milan’s performance mystified. 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, as transpired. The incentive seemed lost on them, although they did take the lead when Takumi Minamino failed to intercept a poorly taken corner from Junior Messias. Alisson was forced into evasive action at the near post as the ball flew at him and he parried straight to Fikayo Tomori.
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 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. In scoring his 20th goal of the season, Salah became the first Liverpool player since Ian Rush to reach the landmark in five successive seasons and the fourth in total. He also became the first Liverpool player to score seven goals in a European group campaign.
Klopp’s team took full advantage of the hosts’ lethargy when taking the lead through their match-winner on Saturday, Origi. Tomori added an unwanted assist to his night’s work when letting a routine pass from Kessié slide under his foot into the path of Mané. The forward, breaking through on the left, forced Maignan into a one-handed save from the angle but the goalkeeper’s punch sailed to 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 in an attempt to ignite the Milan performance but, when his players did venture near the visitors’ penalty area, Nat Phillips and Ibrahima Konaté routinely extinguished their hopes.
Phillips, instrumental in Liverpool qualifying for the competition, enjoyed a confident first start of the season as he kept Zlatan Ibrahimovic quiet, even executing a Cruyff turn under pressure inside his own box at one point. “That was the situation of the game,” Klopp beamed. “He played an outstanding game. Come on, it was ridiculous.”
Kessié was presented with an excellent chance to level five minutes from time when played through by the substitute Tiémoué Bakayako. Alisson saved his attempted chip at close range and Liverpool’s perfect record in the process.