London (AFP) – Liverpool made light of their Premier League woes to ease into the quarter-finals of the Champions League by beating RB Leipzig 2-0 in Budapest for the second time in three weeks.
After a wretched run of a record six consecutive defeats at Anfield, Jurgen Klopp’s men might have welcomed a return to the Hungarian capital for their ‘home’ leg of the last 16 tie.
The Champions League this season and next is now the Reds focus as they try to salvage a campaign decimated by injuries and a drastic decline in form after romping to a first league title in 30 years last season.
With a seven-point gap to make up on a resurgent Chelsea or 10-point deficit to bridge to third-placed Leicester in the final 10 games of the Premier League season, a return to the Champions League via the top four is looking increasingly unlikely.
Instead, the English champions could have to win a seventh European Cup just to avoid missing out on next season’s Champions League for the first time in five seasons.
“The only reason you play in this competition is because you want to win it,” said Klopp.
“I am not silly, we know so far this is not a season which it will look like we will win the Champions League in the end, but that doesn’t mean we don’t want to go as far as possible and then we will see what is possible for us.”
Liverpool have history in making European miracles out of seemingly lost seasons. In Rafael Benitez’s first year in charge in 2004/05 Liverpool finished level on points with Bolton in fifth.
Yet, they pulled off the greatest comeback ever seen in a Champions League final from 3-0 down at half-time to beat AC Milan on penalties in Istanbul.
The Turkish capital will host the final again this year and there were at least some signs on Wednesday of the Liverpool of old.
Long-term injuries to Virgil Van Dijk, Joe Gomez and Joel Matip have meant midfielders Fabinho and Jordan Henderson have spent most of the season deputising at centre-back.
However, Fabinho revelled in being restored to his more natural holding midfield role and providing the protection needed for Nat Phillips to shine on his Champions League debut at the heart of the defence.
“I told him on the way down: ‘you like the position six more then, you couldn’t show it more clearly'”, said Klopp. “Of course, number six is his position, he is one of the best in the world in that position.”
Fabinho’s return to midfield also freed up Thiago Alcantara to show the skills that made the Spaniard such a prized signing from Bayern Munich in September.
Up front the return of Diogo Jota from injury added a fresh burst of energy, while just as in the first leg, Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane scored the goals to see off last season’s semi-finalists with ease.
“The best thing that the boys did is that no one could see how good Leipzig can be,” added Klopp. “We defended them really well because they are a monster.”
With just under a month until the quarter-finals come round, there is plenty of time for Liverpool to rediscover some momentum for the last eight.