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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Jamie Jackson at Anfield

Darwin Núñez and Cody Gakpo inspire Liverpool to 6-1 win over Sparta Prague

Darwin Núñez celebrates after scoring Liverpool’s opening goal against Sparta Prague.
Darwin Núñez celebrates after opening the scoring for Liverpool against Sparta Prague. Photograph: Jon Super/AP

This was an unadulterated duck shoot for Liverpool and the apt way to send a shudder through Manchester United before Sunday’s FA Cup quarter-final at Old Trafford.

Jürgen Klopp’s admirable side are into Friday’s Europa League quarter-final draw via a goal-fest that almost required an abacus to keep count, because when Cody Gakpo touched in his second on 55 minutes that was 6-1 on the night and 11-2 on aggregate.

Mohamed Salah’s successful return to the XI for the first time since New Year’s Day is the headline news before the Cup tie versus United. His contribution: a goal, three assists, the completion of the match and 20 goals for a seventh successive campaign – becoming the first player to achieve that feat for Liverpool.

“An outstanding player,” said Klopp. “The plan was not for him to play 90 minutes, but Bobby [Clark] felt something so we have to take him off [instead]. I told him to stop defending – the first time I ever said this to a player – by the way Mo, it’s different on Sunday.”

Within seven minutes Sparta Prague were breached – as they were three more times before the quarter-hour. Dominik Szoboszlai was fed along the right and he pulled the ball back for Darwin Núñez to drive home.

The next came straight from the kick-off in a defensive horror show. Ladislav Krejci was robbed by Salah, he found Bobby Clark, and the midfielder beat Peter Vindahl for a first senior goal. Seven-one soon became 8-1 overall. This time Jaroslav Zeleny was the visitors’ culprit as Clark dispossessed the centre-back and tapped to Salah, who swept home.

Shell-shocked already, Sparta soon felt worse. Salah was the provider, the Egyptian allowed an age to find Gakpo, who made no mistake, for 9-1 and tie over, with United enjoying this as much as those in black.

A yawning 20 minutes passed before Vindahl’s goal was seriously threatened again. Salah miscued a shot, the ball bobbled to Núñez, and from close range he skied the effort, provoking a Klopp chortle. Clark, inspired, next went close, selling a dummy in Sparta’s area that allowed him to unleash a piledriver Vindahl repelled.

Salah ended the period beating his hands in frustration at not being able to add to the score; Brian Priske, Sparta’s manager, was sighted clapping at Veljko Birmancevic’s strike, the midfielder beating Caoimhín Kelleher to the keeper’s left.

For the second half Klopp changed Joe Gomez, Núñez and Wataru Endo for Kostas Tsimikas, Harvey Elliott and James McConnell and soon it was 5-1, Szoboszlai’s strike coming at a canter. The No 8 wandered along an inside-right diagonal and shot, the ball pinging off Krejci and past Vindahl to his left.

Salah had the assist once more but the question was how long might the Egyptian magician last before Klopp removed him. Long enough for him to witness Elliott power the effort that enabled Gakpo to flick beyond Vindahl to tee the Dutchman up for the chance of a hat-trick.

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As the hour passed on came Virgil van Dijk for a run-out before Sunday’s trip up the M62 – Klopp replacing Jarell Quansah, though not before the German drew a yellow card for a touch of sideline dissent after the young defender had been booked. The manager greeted this with a grin to the bench, then hugged Quansah, who might have observed the contest from a deckchair.

Klopp said in the buildup that it would be silly to consider him having a rethink on departing his post. Sure – but he would not be human if there were no secret second thoughts given the vibrant squad his successor will inherit.

“Big respect to Liverpool,” said Priske.

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