Liverpool cruised into the last 16 of the Champions League by exacting revenge on 10-man Atletico Madrid to win 2-0 at Anfield on Wednesday and qualify with two games to spare.
Goals inside the first 21 minutes from Diogo Jota and Sadio Mane gave the Spanish champions a mountain to climb even before Felipe was sent off before half-time for a cynical hack on Mane.
Maximum points from four games is enough to win Liverpool Group B and guarantee home advantage in the second leg of their last-16 tie come the new year.
The Reds are now unbeaten in 25 games in all competitions stretching back to the end of last season, matching a club record.
And four straight victories to obliterate what on paper looked a tough group alongside Porto and AC Milan has sent out a warning that the 2019 winners are back among the contenders to win the Champions League.
“You earn a lot of money to win Champions League games,” said Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp. “The first target was to get through this group, but we did it with two games to go.
“An incredible group stage so far, I wouldn’t have expected that when I saw the draw. For tonight job done, but we all know there are two games to go and we will try everything to win them as well.”
Atletico on the other hand have a battle to reach the knockout stages as they sit third, one point behind Porto with two games to play.
“In recent seasons it has been like this for us,” said Simeone of having to go to the wire to reach the last 16. “We have the responsibility to improve and we have two great games in front of us.”
When the sides last met at Anfield 20 months ago, Atletico’s dramatic extra-time victory to reach the Champions League quarter-finals was overshadowed by the looming threat of coronavirus.
The Liverpool support had not forgotten the bad blood that brewed between the teams from that tie and the Reds’ 3-2 win in the Spanish capital two weeks ago.
Luis Suarez was roundly booed on his return to Anfield, while Atletico coach Diego Simeone was mocked as his side capitulated before half-time.
The Argentine was aghast on the touchline at some of the visitors’ defending during the first 45 minutes.
Just like their meeting in Madrid, Liverpool were 2-0 up inside the first quarter.
Jota easily escaped the attention of Felipe to have a free header from Trent Alexander-Arnold’s cross to open the floodgates.
Alexander-Arnold was also the creator for the second goal as this time his shot was turned beyond Jan Oblak by Mane.
– Felipe sent off –
Felipe thought he would get away with a booking when he took a swipe at Mane to halt a counter-attack inside the Liverpool half.
But Dutch referee Danny Makkelie decided otherwise as he produced a straight red for the Brazilian defender and was backed up by his colleague in the VAR booth.
VAR did intervene to deny both sides a goal in the second period for offside.
Jota had just strayed beyond the last defender when he slotted past Oblak.
Suarez was then denied a sweet moment to silence the boos when his deflected effort was ruled out for offside against Jose Maria Gimenez.
Atletico could have been on the end of a similar 5-0 thrashing to the one Liverpool dished out to Manchester United 10 days ago had Klopp’s men been as clinical as they were at Old Trafford.
Oblak spread himself to ensure Mohamed Salah failed to score for the first time in a Champions League game this season before Joel Matip and Jota failed to hit the target with simple chances.
“People want to see more goals but we did create more chances,” added Klopp. “I think the game was nearly perfect.”