Only one to go now. Mohamed Salah is a goal away from becoming the fifth player to score 200 for Liverpool. The Egyptian showed few signs he finds the 190s nervous, driving in a penalty to reach 199 as he captained Liverpool at Anfield for the first time.
Jurgen Klopp delayed another kind of celebration, taking off Salah with 35 minutes remaining and the opportunity to bring up his landmark against an outclassed LASK side. It may simply prove a case of postponing the inevitable. Salah has 13 goals for the season, seven of them in his last five outings at Anfield, and Sunday’s match against Fulham could see him join Ian Rush, Roger Hunt, Gordon Hodgson and Billy Liddell in a select group.
In the list of Salah’s achievements, qualifying from a Europa League pool ranks fairly lowly but victory over LASK ensures there will be European football on Merseyside in 2024. With Toulouse being held by Union Saint-Gilloise, Liverpool won the group to spare themselves a play-off round against a team that drops out of the Champions League. While they head straight for the last 16, the immediate benefit is next month’s game in Brussels becomes meaningless. And, as it is three days before they face Manchester United, Klopp could leave several regulars at home.
So defeat in Toulouse did not come at a cost. This result was not in doubt after a quarter of an hour, progress clinched by Salah’s spot kick early in the second half. It all felt predictable, Liverpool taking their return on home soil this season to 10 wins out of 10.
But there was a twist on a familiar theme. Many a victory in the Klopp years has seen each of his forward trio on the scoresheet and if this is not the classic Liverpool front three – not with Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino in the distinctly warmer climes of Saudi Arabia these days – a different group were on the scoresheet together. They dovetailed beautifully, too, for the second goal, Luis Diaz and Salah setting up Cody Gakpo. If Liverpool’s attackers have been sufficiently prolific that none exactly needed a goal, Diaz and Gakpo were outscored by the other three. Diaz got his fifth of the campaign, Gakpo’s brace took him to six and each was a terrific goal.
First Diaz plunged to head in Joe Gomez’s volleyed cross. The Colombian had scored in the reverse fixture, too, and as LASK left him unmarked, it felt too easy. Then came a combination of the attacking trident. Diaz fed an overlapping Salah whose cross was so inviting that Gakpo had a tap-in. The Dutchman turned provider in a way for Salah’s strike: his burst into the box was interrupted when he was upended by the goalkeeper Tobias Lawal. Salah struck the penalty with sufficient force that the goalkeeper did not dive. He departed soon after but it was typical of his hunger that he played: if Europa League campaigns can afford chances to rest players more accustomed to Champions League finals, Salah is an ever present, either as a starter or a substitute.
With Liverpool’s pace and movement too much for LASK, a fourth goal could have arrived before injury time, when the substitute Trent Alexander-Arnold picked out Gakpo with an incisive pass and he powered a shot in. As he had struck the post earlier, it was almost a first Liverpool hat-trick. Kostas Tsimikas, who rattled the bar with a thunderbolt, was also thwarted by the upright.
There were a host of other opportunities. Gakpo skewed a shot wide. Diaz skied one after being released by Gomez, with a ball over the visitors’ defence. Able to venture forward from right-back, Gomez sought a belated first goal of his career and drilled a shot just wide. The overworked Lawal denied Harvey Elliott and the substitute Darwin Nunez.
Liverpool were sufficiently open that, with a better final ball and a finer appreciation of the offside law, LASK could have had more chances. As it was, Marin Ljubicic skied a shot and Ibrahim Mustapha was denied by Caoimhin Kelleher. It was one of three fine late saves by the Irishman, starting his spell standing in for the injured Alisson; if Liverpool kept him too occupied, it may help him.
LASK’s vocal, scarf-twirling fans did not have a goal to cheer but enjoyed the night, however. Liverpool’s three home games have been a reminder that, for clubs who rarely qualify for the Champions League and who are unaccustomed to visiting Anfield, such matches are special. For Salah, however, the special occasion may come on Sunday if he enters the 200 club.