For Liverpool, this time there was never any danger that a 3-0 half-time lead could be lost. It was more just a surprise that their record win in the Champions League, an 8-0 thrashing of Besiktas in 2007, remained intact on a night when English football was assured of its fifth representative in the last 16 of the Champions League and Jürgen Klopp’s players had a lot of fun sealing their qualification.
By the end, it had started to feel absurd that Liverpool’s second-half meltdown against Sevilla in their previous Champions League assignment had left their final match in Group E with a precarious feel. It was a deception. Philippe Coutinho had his first hat-trick for the club. The players of Spartak Moscow looked in need of smelling salts and the only slight oddity was that it took until the 86th minute before Mohamed Salah, Liverpool’s leading marksman, added his name to an already extensive scoresheet.
By that stage Sadio Mané had scored twice. Roberto Firmino added the other in that early blitz when Liverpool scored three times inside the opening 19 minutes and there was another statistic that made Klopp beam proudly. No other English team had ever qualified from the Champions League group stages with so many goals – 23 from six games. Not even the great Barcelona and Real Madrid sides had accumulated these numbers. Paris Saint-Germain, who scored 25 times to qualify this season, are the only side ever to do better.
Liverpool will find out their prize, as group winners, in the draw on Monday, though first there is the small matter of a Merseyside derby. Everton might be sturdier opponents now Sam Allardyce has been parachuted in but, on this evidence, Klopp’s team will take some stopping.
Coutinho, in particular, looked irresistible. Wearing the captain’s armband on a night when Jordan Henderson was relegated to the bench, the Brazilian has been directly involved in 15 goals in his past 11 appearances, scoring nine and setting up another six.
The only downside for Liverpool was the first-half injury to Alberto Moreno and the fact Emre Can will be suspended from the opening leg of their last-16 match because of the yellow card he received for an early challenge on Zé Luís. Can went into the match knowing a booking would make him ineligible and it was strange, in such a one-sided contest, he felt it necessary to lunge in that way.
That apart, Liverpool can reflect on a hugely satisfying evening and it would have felt slightly impudent to point out that not even the most optimistic Kopite can expect Everton to defend as generously as the team who are fourth in the Russian Premier League.
Georgi Dzhikiya’s bewildering challenge on Salah, four minutes in, set the tone, presenting Coutinho with the chance to open the scoring from the penalty spot, and the same Spartak defender carelessly lost the ball to Mané in the buildup to Firmino making it 3-0. In between, Liverpool’s quick, incisive passing had carved open the visiting defence for Coutinho’s second and thereafter it was difficult to keep count of the scoring opportunities.
Liverpool might not have just emulated the Besiktas score – they had enough chances, without exaggeration, to inflict the damage that Stromsgodset endured here in 1974, on the wrong end of an 11-0 whipping in the European Cup Winners’ Cup.
This was also the night when Coutinho identified himself as the club’s new penalty-taker, ending a difficult run during which Firmino, Salah and James Milner, twice, have failed to convert from 12 yards during games at Anfield in 2017. Yet the game will be remembered for the stylish, attacking football from Liverpool once they had realised their passage to the next stage was not in danger.
The move for Coutinho’s second goal was particularly illuminating, with Salah and Firmino prominently involved, and there was an even more beguiling exchange of passes later in the first half, spoiled only by Mané’s wild shot. Firmino’s expertly taken finish, after a lucky ricochet off a Russian defender, demonstrated his own high confidence and Liverpool’s attacking quartet never eased off once the game had become a rout.
The outstanding goal came two minutes into the second half when Milner, who had replaced Moreno, sent over a cross from the left and Mané smashed in a volley with so much power it might have done serious damage to someone in the Kop had it not rocketed into the roof of the net. Coutinho’s hat-trick goal came via a deflection off Salvatore Bocchetti and, with 40 minutes still to play, Liverpool were 5-0 up, closing in on their record win in this competition.
They could not quite get there but it was a close-run thing. The substitute Daniel Sturridge set up Mané to poke in the sixth goal. Salah rammed in the next one for his 18th goal of the season and Liverpool freewheeled into the knockout stages for the first time since 2009.