‘We are top of the group, our destiny is in our own hands, we’re at home and we haven’t lost in the competition yet, despite facing really strong teams. But we also know if we lose tonight the most likely outcome is we won’t qualify. This gives this match a cup final feel to it and we have to have that mentality. We have to treat this game – players, staff and supporters – as the most important of the season.’
One must therefore wonder what Jordan Henderson was left thinking as he watched his teammates cruise past Spartak Moscow and into the Champions League knock-out stages on Wednesday evening. In their ‘cup final’ and ‘most important’ game of the season, the biggest role Liverpool’s captain had was penning the programme notes.
“I have a lot of difficult decisions,” was Jurgen Klopp’s explanation for leaving Henderson on the bench, the manager having described this final group game as “a proper final”. And it was a proper performance from his side, stand-in skipper Philippe Coutinho inspiring an irresistible 7-0 victory.
Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino were predictably wonderful, Daniel Sturridge providing a late cameo as the forward line left the travelling defence reeling. Sam Allardyce’s organisational skills will have to be faultless to emerge from Sunday’s Merseyside derby unscathed.
But Coutinho was the star, Henderson’s replacement both as captain and in central midfield. The Brazilian scored a hat-trick and was sublime throughout, having four shots, creating two chances, and enjoying a perfect 100 touches.
He was permitted freedom to roam by the quietly effective pair of Emre Can and Georginio Wijnaldum, fresh from their roles as centre-halves against Brighton. There was no clumsy passing, no panic in possession and no ineffective defensive work, but two tackles apiece, a combined five interceptions, and pass completion rates both above 90%.
Watching on was Henderson, left on a bench featuring six English outfielders for a game of such importance. James Milner, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Sturridge were summoned, but not their de-facto on-pitch leader.
“As a player you want to play on these big nights and big occasions,” said Steven Gerrard, the man from whom the armband was inherited, before the match. “I didn’t like that as a player,” he added, but aside from one Northern Irishman’s ill-advised decision to leave his best players on the bench at the Santiago Bernabeu three years ago, the midfielder was rarely if ever overlooked. It was once unfathomable that a Liverpool captain would not start a game of such magnitude; it was once unfathomable that a Liverpool captain would not be good enough to.
Before the game, discussion turned to other ‘famous European nights at Anfield’. The 4-3 victory over Borussia Dortmund, the countless fixtures against Chelsea, and of course the 3-1 win over Olympiakos in December 2004. The parallels with this evening were obvious: it was a must-win game, Liverpool’s final Champions League group fixture, and their next match was a Merseyside derby. The difference was that the captain played the full 90 minutes of both games 14 years ago, while he did not rise from the bench this time around.
Rotation has always been a widely accepted facet of football management, particularly for a Premier League club competing in three or more competitions. But some players have always been immune, captains chief among them. Yet this was the fourth league or Champions League game Henderson has been rested for despite being fit and available this season.
The 27-year-old is no longer a guaranteed starter. He will still feature in most matches, and will likely start against Everton on Sunday, but this was a revealing selection. Klopp has rotated his squad seamlessly this season and if he cannot trust his captain in such a crucial game, he has earned the right to make such “difficult decisions”.
By the time Coutinho ceded the armband to Milner for the second half, the message had already reverberated around a raucous Anfield. Much of the pre-game discussion centered around Henderson, but he had become an afterthought amidst the post-game celebrations. There is an unmistakeable sense that Liverpool have outgrown their captain.