It wasn’t as exhilarating as many of this season’s remarkable last 16 ties and it certainly didn’t have the quality of football that’s been on show over the last fortnight; but Liverpool’s wonderful victory in Munich, inspired by two-goal Sadio Mane, has nevertheless put down a marker that is hugely significant.
Their 3-1 triumph at a ground where so few teams have enjoyed success will go down in the pantheon of Liverpool’s great away European wins and means there will be four Premier League teams in the last eight when the quarter-final draw is staged on Friday. It was all the more remarkable when you consider Jurgen Klopp’s side had lost their last four European away ties, including every one of their group stage fixtures away from Anfield, and struggled to find fluency in what was a bitty and tense game full of poor passing and no real rhythm.
But nobody in Liverpool will be too worried about that as two goals from the emerging Mane and one from Virgil van Dijk showed that they have enough character and enough heroes to challenge the very best no matter what the occasion. This year’s last 16, remember, had already delivered some of the most memorable games in the competition’s history and this was Liverpool’s chance to make their own special mark and keep pace with the giants around them.
The challenge for a club so steeped in European football history, and for a team that reached the final only last season, was to take the baton from their biggest rivals for the trophy and prove they are still deserving of the aura that goes with memories of former glories. In short, this was a day when Liverpool needed to step up. To match Manchester United’s remarkable victory in Paris, to recreate the thrilling football of Manchester City’s seven-goal demolition of Schalke, to channel Ajax’s remarkable win in Madrid and to find a hero to match the ultimate legend that is Cristiano Ronaldo after his hat-trick for Juventus against Atletico 24 hours earlier.
Did they do that? Well, looking at the scoreline you have to answer in the affirmative because a victory in Bayern is one to treasure no matter how it was done – and Mane certainly rose to the occasion in a style that Ronaldo would have been proud of. Bayern, it has to be said, were hugely disappointing as they struggled to create meaningful chances even when Liverpool gave the ball away so often.
But the visitors had heroes when they really needed them and nobody more than Mane. In the Senegal star, Liverpool have a player in quite exquisite form and a striker who, in his third year at Anfield, is becoming an ever-more important part of Klopp’s armoury.
He scored 13 goals in his first campaign on Merseyside after signing from Southampton, a season in which he showed flashes of his potential but also a tendency to make bad decisions in front of goal and a frustrating inconsistency. How times have changed. Mane hit 21 goals last season after confirming his place in Liverpool’s’ front three and has 19 already this campaign, his pace proving the perfect foil to Salah’s trickery and Firmino’s energy and clever movement.
These days he has added clever interplay, consistency and a sublime spatial awareness which was highlighted in his first half goal in Munich. Put through by a simple pass he allowed the ball to travel over his shoulder, brought it down with ease, turned past goalkeeper Manuel Neuer and then cleverly and beautifully chipped a left-footed shot into the net. “Everything about this goal was wonderful,” said Liverpool legend Michael Owen, a man who knows a thing or two about finishing.
“A goal of the highest quality. For him to see that ball and take it down , and to have the awareness of what is around him was amazing. And then a cool finish. Real quality.” His second strike, a hanging headed finish at the far post, was his 10th in the last 10 games, a run which has included other doubles against both Watford and Burnley; and at the age of just 26 there is likely to be a lot more to come. In many ways he has outshone Salah, the darling of the Kop, over the last few months.
While Mane has been in remarkable goalscoring form the Egyptian is enduring something of a slow-down, with no goals in his last six games and only one in nine since January. When both begin to spark at the same time who knows where Liverpool can go. If this is what Liverpool can achieve when they under-perform there should be nothing to fear in the last eight.