FC Salzburg 0-2 Liverpool: Keita and Salah seal Champions League knockout spot for the Reds, but Salzburg can hold their heads high
Red Bull arena is a relatively small stadium, with a capacity of almost half that of Anfield. And on the final game of the group stage of the Champions League, it was totally packed.
Murals, flags and excited shouts were up in the air as Liverpool visited the arena. A draw would ensure Liverpool's progress, while Salzburg needed a win to reach the knockout stages.
Having lost the previous game to Napoli, the prospect of a group stage exit was looming large over Liverpool's head. Sadio Mane, who was rested on the weekend, came back to start for the Reds. The formidable three of Sane, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino were up front captained by Jordan Henderson.
A defeat could knock Liverpool out of UCL and they knew that Salzburg were no easy opponents. They had almost held Liverpool to a draw at Anfield in their previous meeting.
As expected, both teams played a pleasing, attacking style of football. But in the end, it was Liverpool that came out on top.
Naby Keita struck first, and after a string of missed opportunities and squandered chances Salah scored a beauty. Though they played with vigor and urgency, lack of finishing cost Salzburg the game - and with it a chance of progressing to the knockout stages.
After an array of back-and-forth, end-to-end football, the first goal came at around the hour mark. Trent Alexander-Arnold released a long pass from the right flank to Andrew Robertson, one wing back to another. Robertson slid in a pass for Mane, who made a marauding run through left and chipped in for Keita to head the ball into the back of the net.
Two minutes later, Henderson attempted an audacious long ball for Salah. It seemed like it would find the Egyptian but instead landed near the Salzburg defender, who tried to head it towards the goalkeeper.
The header was a feeble one, without any real power behind it. Instead of finding the goalkeeper, it drifted away - only for Salah to chase and control it.
He looked up for a second. The goal was not far, but the angle was almost impossible. Now, keep in mind the fact that Salah had missed two clear cut chances until then and seemed a shadow of his usual self.
But he was still Salah.
The Egyptian attempted something that was half a chip and half a shoot. The ball, instead of curling away from the post, followed an absurd trajectory and rolled into the back of the net. It was almost a physically impossible goal, and it ended Salzburg's hopes.
After the goals, Salzburg seemed like a team devoid of confidence. It was as though they had finally accepted the inevitable. They knew immediately after the Salah goal that they had been outclassed by a fantastic Liverpool side.
Though knocked out, though beaten, though looking like an unfinished article at times, Salzburg had been a team to behold. They were probably the most exciting team in the UCL group stages.
It was a youthful side, an audaciously ambitious one at it, playing the beautiful game.
Every once in a while the sport presents teams like these, where the odds don't matter nor does money. These are the kind of teams where individuals are irrelevant and sheer team spirit counts for everything; where grit and determination reign over stature and class.
Erling Braut Haland and Hwang Hee-chan may leave Salzburg next season, just like Mane and Keita did years ago, but new players will emerge from the shadows and they will learn the trade and reach their full potential before leaving the club. The future defines Salzburg; they dwell in it, even though it doesn't belong to them.
The tag of being a feeder club might stand, but along with it will linger the beauty of the football they play. They might not be among the elites, but they are the ones making the elites.Modified 21 Dec 2019, 01:18 IST