The Brazilian played in his preferred position for the first time since October and was outstanding as Jurgen Klopp’s side saw off RB Leipzig
Jurgen Klopp was smiling at the final whistle, and who could blame him?
Liverpool’s domestic campaign may have been scorched, but their European flame still flickers. Into the quarter-finals of the Champions League they go, having seen off the challenge of RB Leipzig in Budapest.
Whatever their struggles at home, the manner of this victory suggests Klopp’s side remain formidable foes in this competition. The six-times winners have their eye on the prize once again.
Leipzig, semi-finalists last season and high-fliers in the Bundesliga this, provided the odd scare, but overall Julian Nagelsmann’s men were no match for their more experienced counterparts. Indeed, had it not been for some wasteful finishing, Liverpool’s winning margin would have been even more comfortable.
This was much more like it, as far as Klopp was concerned. A good win against a good opponent, and a performance far more in-keeping with what we have come to expect from the reigning Premier League champions. “Outstanding,” was his assessment on the touchline, and it was hard to argue.
It was familiar display, one filled with energy and pressing and threat, and a more familiar-looking starting XI too. Square pegs in square holes, whoever would have thought it?
There were, as there had to be, numerous changes from Sunday’s appalling loss to Fulham, with Mane, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Ozan Kabak and Thiago Alcantara all recalled to the starting XI.
The most significant selection, though, was that of Fabinho at the base of the Reds’ midfield. It was that which enabled Klopp’s team to dominate proceedings, pretty much from the first whistle.
Back in his favoured position, the Brazilian was immense; strong, aggressive, positive, aware and trustworthy. No player won possession more times, no player made more interceptions. No player had a bigger impact.
Fabinho had not started a game in midfield since that damaging draw at Everton back in October, but he looked like he had not missed a beat here.
He simply has to stay there, as the No.6, between now and the end of the season. Liverpool need him.
“I told him on the way downstairs, ‘so, you like the No.6 position more, eh?'” Klopp said afterwards. “He said ‘yeah!’ He couldn’t have shown it more!”
“We all want Fab as the six. Tonight he played there and the two centre-halves played an incredible game.”
They certainly did. Ozan Kabak and in particular Nat Phillips were superb, the latter enjoying a hugely impressive European debut.
“Oh my god!” said Klopp of Phillips afterwards. “What a boy he is, what player he is, what a night it is for him!
“In the air he is a monster and you could see today that football-wise he is not bad. I couldn’t be happier for somebody more than I am for Nat at this moment.”
Further forward, Fabinho’s presence enabled others to improve. Trent Alexander-Arnold, better protected by his midfield, was influential while Thiago Alcantara, in particular, looked emboldened.
Mane, Salah and Diogo Jota, meanwhile, benefited hugely from Liverpool’s ability to play forward quickly. All three bristled with intent, and it will have pleased Klopp to see the trio combine superbly for Salah’s opener, 20 minutes from time.
Leipzig had their moments. Alisson Becker saved well from Dani Olmo early on, and Alexander Sorloth headed against the bar after the break, but overall Nagelsmann can have few complaints. Over the two legs, Liverpool were a level above.
“I think we deserved to be knocked out,” Nagelsmann said. “Liverpool deserve to be in the quarter-finals.”
How far can this team go, one wonders? We have seen before, most memorably in 2005, that Liverpool can shrug off a disappointing league campaign and light up the big stage. The final that year, of course, was in Istanbul’s Ataturk Stadum – and guess where this year’s will be played?
They remain a flawed side, for sure, and will need plenty of luck if they are to go all the way. They will need to be a lot more clinical than they were here, for example, and you would fancy sides such as Manchester City or Bayern Munich to find holes in their inexperienced backline.
Those, though, are worries for another day. For now, they can celebrate progress, in more ways than one.
The Reds are on the march in Europe again. No wonder Klopp was smiling.