Philippe Coutinho leads Liverpool's merry band of inspired attackers

Andy Hunter at Anfield on 7 December 2017

Jürgen Klopp bestowed the Liverpool captaincy on Philippe Coutinho for the first time in a competitive fixture against Spartak Moscow, acutely aware it will not be the fleeting honour that ensures the Brazilian’s loyalty amid interest from Barcelona but the continued promise of a shot at the Champions League. The destruction of the Russian champions, with Coutinho at the heart, kept the promise alive and Barcelona waiting.

Liverpool’s coveted playmaker responded to the armband with the first hat-trick of his Anfield career as Klopp’s team took their prolific tally to 12 goals in two games before Sunday’s Merseyside derby. It was the first treble by a Liverpool player in the Champions League since Yossi Benayoun’s against Besiktas a decade ago and helped deliver the most productive return by an English team in the group stage of the competition. They are a team to fear in Europe this season and should have Coutinho along for the duration given the momentum that is building behind Klopp’s side.

Speaking to Brazilian television after the rout, the magical 25-year-old was circumspect about his immediate future and the prospect of another bid from Barcelona when the transfer window reopens. “I do not know how the future is going to be,” he said. “What will happen in January, we will know it in January. I do not know if there will be an offer.

“I am at Liverpool and I always do my best when I have the opportunity to play, respecting the jersey and the supporters. Last summer there was a job offer in the same way that happens with any employee and I was interested in it. Since I stayed, I have played with will and desire.”

A place in the last 16 strengthens Liverpool’s position in the face of Catalonian interest, however, not that they ever blinked last summer. It would also mark significant progress, their manager had claimed before Spartak’s visit, and his team confirmed their advance in emphatic fashion.

Klopp’s reasoning was based on the fact Liverpool last reached the knockout phase of Europe’s elite competition eight years ago. “A long time,” he said. “You only play the group stage as Liverpool to come through to the last 16.”

Easier said than done. Since the 2008-09 season that step had proved elusive for the five-times champions of Europe with their two Champions League campaigns ending at the group stage. Squandering a three-goal interval lead at Sevilla had raised the prospect of an undistinguished hat-trick but that was obliterated inside 19 first-half minutes. Against Hoffenheim in the play-offs, another “final” according to Klopp, Liverpool were three goals up after 21 minutes. Their front line has thrived under pressure in Europe this term.

Liverpool’s attack was inspired against the sorry champions of Russia. An inspired tactical move by Klopp allowed them to be so. The German coach caught opposite number Massimo Carrera by surprise by starting with familiar faces in an unfamiliar formation. Mohamed Salah joined Roberto Firmino in a two-man attack with Coutinho and Sadio Mané pressing high from the left and right respectively. At times Liverpool resembled a 4-2-4, as their forward options revelled in the spaces left by a dishevelled Spartak defence. The visitors were clearly not helped by makeshift left-back Georgi Dzhikiya conceding a penalty with a needless pull on Salah after only four minutes. Equally, they appeared clueless over how to stop Liverpool’s movement and runners.

Salah had licence to drop deep from his frontline role and leave his marker, central defender Salvatore Bocchetti, at a loss over whether to follow or hold firm. The full backs, Dzhikiya and Andrei Eschenko on the right, were left completely exposed to the menace of Mané and Coutinho.

The Brazilian showed early responsibility to take and convert the penalty, the first Liverpool have scored at Anfield in 2017 following four misses. Even before adding a second 11 minutes later he had created a decent chance for Mané with a lovely flick over the visiting defence and tested goalkeeper Aleksandr Selikhov with a curling effort from the edge of the penalty area.

Coutinho’s second arrived at the end of a glorious move that typified Liverpool’s destruction of the Spartak defence, Salah releasing Firmino into acres of room on the right before the striker picked out his Brazilian compatriot with an intelligent ball across the area. Coutinho’s neat finish took his contribution to eight goals and six assists in his past 11 appearances for Liverpool.

It became nine in 11 when his shot deflected off Bocchetti and wrong-footed Selikhov five minutes after the restart. By that point Liverpool had subjected Spartak to a humiliation.

Firmino, capitalising on more defensive errors by Dzhikiya and Serdar Tasci, had given Klopp’s team a three-goal lead at half-time for the second consecutive Champions League game. There was never any question of the Russians repeating Sevilla’s remarkable recovery although, just to make sure, Mané made it four with a brilliantly controlled volley from substitute James Milner’s cross.

Coutinho’s hat-trick ensured Liverpool became the highest scoring English team in a Champions League group with 21 goals. Mané’s second made it 22, Salah’s 18th of the season 23. Antonio Conte may have been justified in his insistence no group winner will want to draw his Chelsea team on Monday. The same applies to all the runners-up who could land Liverpool.

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