Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp hailed Red Bull Salzburg’s talent treadmill on a night when it was former midfielder, Naby Keita, who starred as opposed to much-talked-about teenager Erling Braut Haaland.
Salzburg produced a performance brimful with heart, desire and quality but were undone by the defending Champions League winners to resign themselves to Europa League football in 2020.
That could have major repercussions over the future of the in-demand Haaland, for whom Manchester United had scouts in attendance at the Red Bull Arena on Tuesday night.
An £85million price tag has been mooted for the 19-year-old, who has scored 28 goals and laid on seven assists in 22 appearances this season.
Haaland came into this clash having scored in all of his previous five Champions League appearances, making himself the competition’s second-highest goalscorer with eight strikes. Confidence coursing through his veins, he vowed to score a sixth hat-trick of the season in a 3-1 win for the hosts.
But he couldn’t find the back of the net this time, drilling into the side-netting of Alisson’s near post with his best chance, as Liverpool survived Salzburg’s first-half pressure and produced an accomplished second-half performance to book their spot in the last 16.
Crucial to the Premier League leaders’ victory, in testing circumstances against the Austrian champions, were two former Salzburg players in Sadio Mane and Keita.
The Guinean, starting just his second match in either the Premier League or the Champions League this term, rewarded Jurgen Klopp’s decision to keep faith in him by scoring his second goal in as many games.
And it was Mane who provided the assist, with goalkeeper Cican Stankovic racing off his line only for Liverpool’s in-form winger to dance round him and clip in a cross which Keita headed past a Salzburg defender on the line.
Mohamed Salah’s strike from an acute angle rounded off the evening as Mane himself went close to netting against his former outfit, and Klopp was full of praise for Keita and Mane in particular.
“I couldn’t have more respect for what Salzburg are doing here, the way they play football, I really love it,” Klopp said.
“I love that my team are so smart, they listen and they put in a shift like that. Salzburg were unbelievably strong, especially in the first half but we were too, we were ready for that fight.
“We should have scored more goals. In the second half it’s not easy to keep that intensity; we scored the goals, could have scored more but really massive respect for Jesse and Salzburg for what they did here.
“They began great, they began very quickly but then Haaland and Hwang saw it’s not easy to win a race with Virgil [van Dijk]. Jesse and his team worked great with their team and gave them a fantastic attitude.
“They used what they could use, but we also played very well in the spaces.
“When we started to play more intelligently and use the spaces we had in the second half then we used our opportunities. In the second half, how we played was very difficult for Salzburg.
“I saw we had 21 attempts on goal and we could have scored five or six times, so it was really difficult for Salzburg in the second half. But, once again, my highest respect for Jesse and his team.”
Salah’s strike, again after Stankovic ill-judgedly came off his line, helped avoid the Egyptian boarding the plane back to England filled with frustration over failing to score the goal he craved – having scored twice in the reverse fixture between the two teams.
He missed three excellent opportunities before finding the back of the net and Klopp laughed: “It was for sure the most difficult situation he had tonight.
“He played really well but didn’t score in the situations we expect him usually to score, but staying on track and making such a decisive and very difficult finish, that probably says much more about him than all of the other goals he has scored.
“So, staying concentrated, belief in the next moment, it was brilliant. A very, very difficult goal but a sensational finish.”
The only blight on the night was Dejan Lovren’s injury, having also gone off against Bournemouth last weekend but returned to fitness in time for the trip to Austria.
Liverpool manager Klopp admitted they don’t know what the extent of the Croatian centre-half’s issue is, though the 27-year-old told journalists in the mixed zone that it was a hamstring problem – which the Merseyside club will hope is only minor.
But regardless of how bad an injury it is, it will not detract from what has been an immensely positive season for Liverpool so far.
From 26 games across all competitions, the European champions have now won 20 and lost just one – securing their spot in the next round of the Champions League and leading the Premier League table by eight points.
Asked what limits there are to the success of this Liverpool team, Klopp replied: “It is very difficult to measure. Of course there are limits. We have to work hard to achieve what we want.
“We wanted to move on to the next knockout phase, that was important, and it wasn’t in our plan to be the leader of the Premier League in December but it’s great to be there. B
“ut we need to use everything and we need to work very hard. Yes, there are limits and if the boys play like this then it makes it easier for us but they have to be ready and try to achieve their goals always like they did tonight.”
With five games in the next 16 days, including Liverpool’s quest to win the Club World Cup for a first time out in Qatar, the challenges continue at blistering pace. But then so too do Liverpool.