Five star Liverpool brush Sparta Prague aside

Darwin Núñez scores 1,000th of Jürgen Klopp’s reign in emphatic win

Sparta Prague 1 Liverpool 5

The perfect night for Liverpool in Prague. Almost. Jürgen Klopp’s quadruple chasing team effectively booked their place in the Europa League quarter-finals with an emphatic and clinical defeat of Sparta Prague.

Darwin Núñez warmed up for the top of the table clash against Manchester City with two superb goals, including the 1,000th of Klopp’s Liverpool reign, and Mohamed Salah made his comeback after over a fortnight out as a late substitute.

Only the sight of Ibrahima Konaté hobbling off injured prevented Klopp basking in the ideal preparation for Sunday’s showdown at Anfield. Klopp did not have the luxury of resting seven regulars ahead of Manchester City’s visit, as Pep Guardiola had done against Copenhagen the previous night, but it was a much stronger and more experienced lineup than Liverpool have been able to field of late.

A convincing evening’s work began almost immediately. With five minutes gone Sparta goalkeeper Peter Vindahl played centre-half Asger Sørensen into trouble with a risky pass through the Liverpool press on the edge of his area. Alexis Mac Allister pounced instantly, taking the ball off Sørensen’s toes before being sent sprawling by the defender’s careless challenge inside the area. Spanish referee José María Sánchez Martínez awarded a clear penalty and, with regular taker Salah on the bench, Brighton’s former spot-kick expert calmly sent Vindahl the wrong way from his first Liverpool penalty.


Sparta’s determination to play out from the back had presented an earlier chance for Núñez but, despite the obvious dangers, their approach stretched Liverpool and made for a highly entertaining contest. But for inspired goalkeeping from Caoimhin Kelleher and some woeful finishing, the Czech champions would have remained firmly in the tie before Núñez put it beyond them.

The Liverpool keeper produced an incredible save to keep out Lukas Haraslin’s first time shot, shifting his weight to get the leverage and some fingertips to an effort that was destined for the far corner. The ball could still have dropped over the line but for an equally impressive, overhead clearance by Joe Gomez that found the safety of Kelleher’s grasp.

Konaté, who went off injured in the second half, blocked two efforts by the lively Ángelo Preciado in quick succession. And both with his backside. From a resulting corner Martin Vitik flicked on Preciado’s header only for Kelleher to rescue his team once again with another athletic stop.

The difference in the finishing determined the outcome and there was no better demonstration of the gulf in quality than the 1,000th goal of Klopp’s Liverpool reign. Núñez scored it in spectacular fashion. There seemed little on when the Uruguay international received Harvey Elliott’s pass out on the left. Núñez had other ideas, however, and curled a stunning shot from outside the left-hand corner of the Sparta penalty area into the top left-hand corner of Vindahl’s goal. The striker celebrated in front of the home fans, as well he might, and several plastic cups were thrown in his direction.

Sparta’s adventurous approach and misery in front of goal continued unabated. When Kelleher blocked Jan Kuchta’s low drive with his legs the rebound fell perfectly for Veljko Birmancevic arriving unmarked at the back post. Birmancevic somehow managed to kick the ball with his right leg against his left leg and saw it trickle wide of an open goal. Replays of the miss on the stadium screens prompted gasps from the Sparta fans and heightened his embarrassment.

Núñez showed Sparta how to find the back of the net for a second time with the final act of an absorbing first half. Mac Allister, who teed up the striker’s dramatic winner at Nottingham Forest on Saturday, found the roaming forward again with a cross-field ball from midfield. The centre-forward allowed the pass to bounce before leathering an unstoppable shot across Vindahl and into the far corner. More cups and a plastic bottle were thrown at Núñez as he pointedly celebrated at the corner flag.

Sparta could not score even when they did score. A minute after the restart Birmancevic broke down the right and played a dangerous low cross along the face of the Liverpool six-yard box. Conor Bradley, a half-time replacement for Gomez, turned the delivery into the top corner of his own net. Luis Díaz restored the visitors’ three-goal cushion with a deflected shot from another Elliott assist. He was later replaced by Salah as Klopp gave Liverpool’s leading goalscorer a much-needed run-out following his recent hamstring trouble.

Salah took just 10 minutes to find the target but his low shot into the bottom corner was disallowed following a VAR review for offside. Liverpool’s thoughts had long turned to Sunday by then, although a fifth goal did arrive when substitute Dominik Szoboszlai waltzed through the Sparta defence in the final seconds and beat Vindahl with a low shot. - Guardian