Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino struck late goals as Liverpool claimed a hard-fought 2-0 win at Inter Milan in the first leg of their Champions League Last 16 tie.
The Merseysiders were made to work hard as the Italian champions looked the more likely throughout an impressive second half showing until substitute Firmino nodded in his eighth goal of the campaign 15 minutes from the end.
Salah then pounced on Virgil van Dijk’s knockdown to seal the victory on 83 minutes to snare his 24th goal of the season and extend his club record of now notching in eight successive European away games.
The visitors were lively in attack in an open first half with Sadio Mane twice going close with a header and an acrobatic volley. However, it was Inter who had the best chance to break the deadlock when Hakan Calhanoglu hit the crossbar from a narrow angle on 16 minutes.
The hosts were dominant following the break with Lautaro Martínez a whisker away from converting the busy Ivan Perisic’s cross.
But they were made to pay for failing to make the most of their strong spell when the visitors grabbed a quick-fire double to take control heading into the second leg at Anfield on March 8.
Liverpool will now turn their attention back to the Premier League and a home match with Norwich on Saturday while Inter host Sassuolo in Serie A on Sunday.
Ruthless Reds put one foot in the last eight. For long spells Inter were in with a shout of pulling off a minor surprise and making the second leg on Merseyside a real occasion.
Simeone Inzaghi had admitted the Reds were favourites but his passionate, expressive public team talks seemed to do the trick as the Italians grew in belief and stature as the game wore on.
Liverpool were not at their fluid best and were under pressure for chunks of the second period. In such circumstances a visiting side can come unstuck, but it says much about the calibre of Jurgen Klopp’s team that they were able to weather the pressure and then all-but kill off Inter with a ruthless late double – their first two efforts on target.
Much has been made of the six-time European champions now having a stronger bench and it paid dividends here with Jordan Henderson, Luis Diaz and Naby Keita all helping to inject more energy and quality when they appeared as part of a triple change on the hour, while Firmino chipped in with the crucial opener.
There’s no doubt the Reds are on a roll right now and look like continuing their push on all fronts with the quarter finals of this competition very much on their horizon.
MAN OF THE MATCH
Virgil van Dijk (Liverpool). The Dutchman was imperious at the back. He read the danger with a series of fine block and interceptions when Inter threatened to make the breakthrough and then popped up at the other end to have a role in Salah’s goal.
INTER: Handanovic 6, Skriniar 8, De Vrij 7, Bastoni 7, Dumfries 7, Vidal 7, Brozovic 8, Calhanoglu 7, Perisic 8, Dzeko 7, Martinez 6. Subs: Sanchez 6, Gagliardini n/a, Ranocchia n/a, Darmian n/a, Dimarco n/a.
LIVERPOOL: Alisson 7, Alexander-Arnold 7, Konate 8, Van Dijk 9, Robertson 8, Fabinho 7, Thiago 7, Elliott 7, Mane 7, Salah 7, Jota 6. Subs: Firmino 7, Keita 7, Diaz 7, Henderson 7, Milner n/a.
14’ – LIVERPOOL CHANCE! Mane meets Robertson’s deep free kick from the left but can only flick his firm header just over the crossbar.
16’ – INTER CHANCE! That’s a let off for the away side. Hakan Calhanoglu takes a low cross from the left in his path with a brilliant first touch before unleashing a stunning strike with his second that beats Alisson but cannons off the crossbar.
24’ – LIVERPOOL CHANCE! Inter makes a meal of defending a corner and Mane is left in lots of space right at the far post, but his overhead attempt flashes into the side netting.
55’ – INTER CHANCE! The hosts brilliantly break Liverpool’s press through Brozovic and switch from right to left in an instant thanks to a sublime pass from Dumfries. Perisic’s lovely touch takes him into the area but his delightful cross just evades Martínez.
73’ – INTER CHANCE! Dumfries meets a right-wing corner but can’t guide his header on target.
75’ – GOAL! – Inter 0-1 Liverpool. Firmino meets Robertson’s right-wing corner and powers a fine header back across goal and beyond Handanovic.
83’ – GOAL! – Inter 0-2 Liverpool. It’s that man Salah! Liverpool hit form late on here. Inter fail to deal with Van Dijk’s knockdown and Salah drills a fine shot into the net.