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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

'Fab Three' make Liverpool dangerous outsiders to win Champions League

In Salah, Mane and Firmino Liverpool have goals aplenty. But can their other eight players keep them goals out? They face Porto in the first leg of their Uefa Champions League last-16 tie on Wednesday

Liverpool's Mohamed Salah, right, celebrates scoring Liverpool's second goal in a 2-0 win over Southampton. Roberto Firmino, centre, scored Liverpool's first. Eddie Keogh / Reuters
Liverpool's Mohamed Salah, right, celebrates scoring Liverpool's second goal in a 2-0 win over Southampton. Roberto Firmino, centre, scored Liverpool's first. Eddie Keogh / Reuters

It was another decade, another time. Porto and Liverpool face each other Wednesday. They sit side by side in the list of Uefa Champions League winners; Jose Mourinho’s side in 2004 and Rafa Benitez’s team in 2005.

A repeat seems unlikely – perhaps impossible in the case of the Portuguese club – in an environment when the superclubs appear to have pulled away from the rest. And yet it is not impossible. Liverpool have not won a major trophy since 2012. Neither has Jurgen Klopp, who has an unfortunate record of losing finals.

But there is an element that renders Liverpool dangerous outsiders. Not in the way they were under Benitez, the tactical obsessive and defensive strategist, in anything other than how the explosiveness of Steven Gerrard is mirrored in the dynamism of Anfield’s current class. But because Liverpool’s best is very good and, when they display it, the finest teams can struggle to contain them.

Pep Guardiola warned that Manchester City could be knocked out of the Champions League if there is a repeat of the 10-minute spell at Anfield when they conceded three times. Consider it from a Liverpool angle, however, and it offers grounds for optimism. If they can muster such a devastating three-goal salvo – and one that followed three saves in quick succession from Ederson – against arguably the outstanding side in Europe this season, perhaps they are capable of being as destructive against anyone else.

And that is unaffected by their January sale. They scored four apiece against Arsenal and City without Philippe Coutinho. They remnants of the "Fab Four" can all be deemed big-game players. Mohamed Salah has scored home and away against Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur to add to goals against City and Chelsea. Roberto Firmino is going at a goal a game in the Champions League; one who has tended to score a disproportionate amount of his goals against high-calibre opponents has also found the net against City and Arsenal. Sadio Mane has been less potent this season but his past is illuminated with demonstrations he can eviscerate elite defences. Collectively, they may be the fastest and most fearless forward line in the Champions League. On current form, there are few better attackers than the sublime Salah.

Liverpool's Sadio Mane, left, has the pace to terrorise any defence. Peter Cziborra / Reuters
Liverpool's Sadio Mane, left, has the pace to terrorise any defence. Peter Cziborra / Reuters

One question is if the other eight can offer the solidity to ensure the goals the front three score are not in vain. And while 4-1 and 5-0 defeats to Tottenham and City respectively show that Liverpool are capable of self-destructing, their overall record against the best is excellent under Klopp’s reign. They can win one-off games. And while it has not led to domestic honours, apart from their 2016 League Cup final defeat to City, they have been eliminated by lesser sides. They won the mini-league of the top seven last season and while that produced no prizes, they can raise their game on defining occasions.

If last season suggested many of the leading English teams could not cope with the speed of Klopp’s pressing game, a haul of 23 group-stage goals indicates that some of their continental rivals are unaccustomed to facing sides of Liverpool’s pace.

A capacity to overwhelm has been apparent on the continental stage. Go back two years and Borussia Dortmund seemed to be cruising into the Europa League semi-finals. Then Liverpool scored four times in an extraordinary second half.

None of it makes them favourites in a competition with at least six seemingly stronger sides, but knockout tournaments can be won by teams who can seize the moment. Their past proves it. They scored three goals in seven minutes against AC Milan 13 years ago, and no Liverpool fan needs reminding of their significance.

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