Keita Liverpool's £52m man ready to kickstart career after Salzburg win - Liverpool Echo
Liverpool through to Champions League last 16 and will get Premier League boost by avoiding Europa, writes Paul Gorst in his verdict
By Paul Gorst Liverpool FC correspondent
13:10, 11 DEC 2019
The departures board at Salzburg airport would inadvertently act as the warning for the arriving Liverpool supporters on Monday.
Flights to Ostersund, Wien and Frankfurt were all in view for the Reds who had touched down in Austria.
Decidedly second best. Unmistakably Europa League. Places Reds fans had no intention of visiting post-Christmas.
They knew, however, in order to avoid that fate, their team would have to show and prove once more in Austria on Tuesday night.
As it transpired, the potential embarrassment of dropping into the Europa League was skillfully averted as Liverpool showed just why they are so feared in this tournament. For so long, Jesse Marsch's upwardly mobile and likable outfit matched their exalted visitors, but when the pressure was on and the game was in balance, the European champions bared their teeth here.
No Thursday nights and Sunday afternoon fixture schedules for Jurgen Klopp and his players to navigate, disrupting plans for Premier League glory. No apathetic European campaign to suffer through for supporters either.
Instead, it is merely the knowledge that European Cup No.7 remains in reach. No one across the continent will want Liverpool in that draw. Absolutely none of them.
What is it about Klopp's Liverpool and this competition? Finalists for the last two years and reigning, defending champions of Europe, yet somehow, for the third season running, their passage to the knockout stages was only confirmed at the final group-stage blast of a referee's whistle.
The game started at a ferocious pace and Liverpool had Virgil van Dijk and Alisson to thank, twice apiece, for keeping it goalless as the defender denied Erling Haaland and Hee-chan Hwang before the goalkeeper made a double save from Hwang and Takumi Minamino.
Up the other end, chances came thick and fast for the Reds, too. Mohamed Salah first shot straight at Cican Stankovic before Sadio Mane curled one just wide on the edge of the box. It was a frenetic game played in Klopp's image and there could be no denying that the Reds boss would have loved to have watched the opening half as a neutral.
As manager of Liverpool, though, he will have worried about how open and stretched the game was. This was a throwback to the fly-by-the-seat-your-pants style favoured by the Reds in season's gone by. It wouldn't last.
Salah spurned the visitors' best chance of the first half when he side-footed wide with the goal at his mercy after very good work from the burgeoning Naby Keita. The gifted Guinean treated Bournemouth like his private playground on Saturday afternoon and this here was more evidence that he is ready to belatedly kick start his Liverpool career. Much is expected of the £52m man and for good reason.
Keita had a glorious Salah assist to thank for his goal on Saturday afternoon and once more it was the Egyptian turning provider supreme at the death of the half. This time though, Keita couldn’t get enough lift on the finish as Stankovic kept it out.
However, the big moment would arrive for the ex-Salzburg star on 57 minutes when Mane scampered clear and beat Stankovic to it before crossing. Keita arrived on cue to nod home and give the biggest indication yet that now, finally, is his time at Liverpool.
After several false dawns already during his 18 months at Liverpool, this, here and now, feels like the chance for Keita to take firm control of his Anfield destiny. Starting him here was a big show of faith from Klopp and the 24-year-old repaid him with an excellent performance and crucial goal.
This was the all-singing, all-dancing £52m midfielder Liverpool thought they were getting. The big task now is to merely make this type of display the norm in Liverpool red. The talent is there, just the consistency is needed. More starts will now be demanded from his manager.
After missing another chance early in the second half, Salah's goalscoring woes were put to bed emphatically a minute after the opener when he rounded Stankovic in the Salzburg goal before finishing from a tight angle with his weaker right.
It was a wonderful finish that was frankly in contrast to his other efforts either side. Little worry, of course, he remains a goalscorer of rare brilliance.
How Liverpool grasped the collar of this game was so impressive given the near 60 minutes that had preceded it. It is why they are European champions and into the last 16 once more. When Salzburg thought they had equaled the effort and skill of their opponents, a turbo-burst of quality took it beyond the Austrians in their own backyard.
Like Saturday at Bournemouth, the only blemish on an otherwise perfect night of football for Liverpool, was the sight of Dejan Lovren succumbing to injury. Off he went, for the second successive game, for Joe Gomez.
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Klopp had insisted before this game that he would not be forced into a stop-gap in the market with Joel Matip and Lovren's injury concerns continuing, but the Reds are currently down to just Van Dijk and Gomez as their only fit senior centre-backs.
Klopp will have his fingers and toes crossed for Lovren's medical assessment later this week.
Salzburg are a very good side and American coach Marsch will have genuine designs on lifting Europe's secondary tournament in the New Year. Liverpool might wish them well, but they will have much bigger fish to fry. Both at home and abroad. On they march.
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