Mohamed Salah closes in on 200 club as Liverpool confirm top spot

Liverpool cruised into the Europa League knock-out stages with a match to spare as a 4-0 victory over LASK confirmed their place as group winners.

Early goals from Luis Diaz and Cody Gakpo were enhanced by a second-half Mohamed Salah penalty – his 199th goal for the club – and an added-time strike by Gakpo as Toulouse’s draw with Union Saint-Gilloise means a dreaded round-of-32 play-off was avoided.

That mere fact alone will have delighted manager Jurgen Klopp, whose pre-match press conference had been littered with references to the intense December period ahead, but a club-record 12 points in the group stage shows how dominant the tournament favourites have been.

The Reds’ 100 percent home record was extended to 10 games and a third successive Anfield clean sheet for the first time since October 2022 means they have only conceded four times in front of their own fans while scoring 31.

In reality, that record was never in danger as the Austrians are the weakest side in the group and that frailty was exposed twice inside three minutes early on by a home side registering nine changes, with only Salah and left-back Kostas Tsimikas retained from the weekend draw at Manchester City.

A move which started on the left ended up on the right from where Joe Gomez crossed for Diaz to stoop and power home a twisting header.

The second goal came from the same flank as Salah, teed up by Diaz, picked out Gakpo at the far post for the simplest of close-range volleyed finishes.

Liverpool v LASK – UEFA Europa League – Group E – Anfield
Luis Diaz celebrates scoring Liverpool’s opener (Peter Byrne/PA)

Tsimikas smashed a fierce drive against the crossbar and the overwhelming confidence of the hosts was exemplified by Gomez, who has never scored in eight years at the club, drilling a 25-yard shot just wide.

Much of the half appeared to revolve in getting Salah to his double century as the team tried to pick him out at every opportunity, whether he be menacingly poised on the shoulder of the last defender or inside the penalty area.

Two chances went begging when his angled shot turned into more of a cross but still evaded Gakpo before he fired tamely at the goalkeeper.

Six minutes into the second half Salah finally found the net but he owed it all to Gakpo.

The Netherlands international’s short through-ball to Diaz missed his intended target but the Dutchman was alert enough to chase his own pass and somehow get there before goalkeeper Tobias Lawal, who brought him down.

Lawal showed a similar lack of reaction in watching Salah tuck the penalty into the corner of the net without even attempting a dive.

That was enough to put the result beyond doubt but the feeling was there were more goals to be had as Gakpo hit the base of a post from outside the area, although the Dutchman eventually got a deserved second in added time.

The arrival of Darwin Nunez, and to a lesser extent Trent Alexander-Arnold and Curtis Jones, livened up proceedings, with the former putting in one of his now typical all-action hit-and-miss performances.

Liverpool v LASK – UEFA Europa League – Group E – Anfield
Cody Gakpo scores Liverpool’s fourth goal of the game (Peter Byrne/PA)

It erred more towards the latter as, after Harvey Elliott’s deflected shot was repelled by the goalkeeper’s legs as he dived the other way, the Uruguay international had one effort diverted wide and then shot straight at Lawal from eight yards.

Marin Ljubcic blazed over the visitors’ best chance with only Caoimhin Kelleher to beat and the Liverpool goalkeeper, set for his longest run in the side due to Alisson Becker being sidelined for a fortnight with a hamstring injury, did not have anything to do until the last 20 minutes.

When he was called upon he was not flustered, coming out to smother Ibrahim Mustapha, repelling Moses Usor’s shot and producing a reaction stop from LASK’s top scorer Robert Zulj, but even Sunday’s shot-shy visitors Fulham – scorers of only 13 goals in as many games – will provide a sterner test.