Jürgen Klopp’s prediction that Liverpool would not “fly” through the Europa League group stage amounts to their only mis-step so far. Qualification for the knockout phase is already close at hand with the procession continuing against Toulouse.
Klopp could ring the changes before Nottingham Forest’s Premier League visit on Sunday, give a full debut to 19-year-old left-back Luke Chambers, first Liverpool outings to Calum Scanlon and James McConnell, and still enjoy a fluent, dominant display. It was polished by goals from Diogo Jota, Wataru Endo, Darwin Núñez, the highly impressive Ryan Gravenberch and Mohamed Salah. Salah’s strike with the final kick of the game was his 43rd European goal for Liverpool and took him above Thierry Henry as the most prolific goalscorer for an English club in European competition.
“I think I said it before – it is really easy to fall in love with this team, there is so much excitement,” said the Liverpool manager after a seventh win in seven home matches this season. “We have to make massive steps, we have to grow, but a lot of signs are really positive and how the team interacts with each other is really nice.”
Rivalry was forgotten and friendship remembered as Liverpool paid a warm tribute before kick-off to Bill Kenwright, the Everton chairman who died on Monday. The Hollies’ He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother – the song Kenwright chose for a Hillsborough tribute at Goodison Park and became a fund-raising single for the justice campaign – was played to mass applause from the Liverpool fans inside Anfield. Kenwright’s powerful speech at the Hillsborough memorial service in 2013 and lasting support for the bereaved families will not be forgotten across Stanley Park.
Liverpool have won all three group games with something to spare, underlining why they are favourites for this season’s competition, but the visit of French Cup winners Toulouse proved the most entertaining contest so far. Granted, Toulouse’s terrible defending was a contributory factor but so too was the marauding midfield play of Gravenberch and Liverpool’s quality in front of goal.
The hosts swept into an early lead when Jota collected a Joe Gomez interception, spun away from Cristian Cásseres and Niklas Schmidt, breezed past a nonexistent challenge from Logan Costa and beat goalkeeper Guillaume Restes with a confident finish.
The travelling Toulouse contingent were in uproar as their side stunned Anfield with a fine equaliser. Aron Dønnum dissected the Liverpool defence with a first time ball to Thijs Dallinga, who kept his cool on the long run towards Caoimhín Kelleher’s goal and drilled his shot beyond the stand-in keeper.
More pedestrian defending allowed Liverpool to regain the lead via the first goal of Endo’s Anfield career. Harvey Elliott played a short corner to Curtis Jones, he found Trent Alexander-Arnold, and the Japan international guided the captain’s cross beyond the Toulouse keeper with a precise header. The towering Moussa Diarra epitomised Toulouse’s defending around the goal by standing back to admire Endo as he headed home.
It was soon three when Gravenberch surged through the Toulouse midfield and found Jones. The midfielder’s shot was blocked by Mikkel Desler but rebounded off Jones into the path of Núñez, who lashed a thumping finish into the roof of Restes’ net.
The second half was memorable mainly for misses. Gabriel Suazo squandered a glorious chance to haul Toulouse back into the contest when Kelleher sliced a clearance into the path of Dallinga. The goalscorer squared for Suazo who had a free shot on a goal with only Alexander-Arnold standing in it. To his despair, he managed to find the defender’s thigh.
Not to be outdone, Núñez failed to complete what should have been a stunning individual goal when he left Rasmus Nicolaisen floundering with a superb footwork and rounded the Toulouse goalkeeper. The Uruguay international struck a post instead of the open goal and was on his knees in disbelief when Gravenberch finished the job from the rebound. Salah came off the bench to end the rout and create yet more history when scoring off the underside of the bar.