LIVERPOOL -- Three quick thoughts from Anfield as Liverpool beat Hoffenheim 4-2 on Wednesday in the second leg of their playoff (6-3 on aggregate) to reach the group stages of the Champions League.
1. Liverpool cruise into UCL group stage
This was one of Jurgen Klopp's biggest matches as Liverpool manager, and even with the unthinkable pressure if they had lost, his side wrapped up the victory within the first 20 minutes. Liverpool are back in the group stages of the Champions League for only the third time in the last nine seasons. A first-half flurry at Anfield helped put them in Thursday's draw, which will see the five-time Champions League winners benefit from Europe's top competition both on the pitch and off it.
A double from Emre Can and goals from Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino put the contest beyond Hoffenheim, who froze on the biggest night in the club's history. The illustrious Champions League banners were adorned all over Anfield for the first time since the failed 2014-15 campaign, when Liverpool were unable to get out of their not-too-difficult group. Before kickoff, this playoff was very much alive as a result of Hoffenheim striker Mark Uth's late goal at the Rhine-Neckar-Arena a week ago, which cut Liverpool's lead to 2-1. On Wednesday, Klopp opted to start the same lineup from the first leg.
For Hoffenheim, the score line and the history books were against them as no German team had ever won at Anfield in 18 previous attempts. The bravado and confidence of their players and 30-year-old manager Julian Nagelsmann beforehand seemed entirely misplaced as Klopp had clearly ordered his players to search for an early goal. Liverpool squandered two chances within the opening five minutes; Salah headed over the crossbar and keeper Oliver Baumann denied Sadio Mane in a one-on-one situation. However, they would not have to wait long for the breakthrough.
Mane burst through Hoffenheim's high defensive line once again and back-heeled the ball into the path of Can, whose shot took a thick deflection beyond Baumann into the bottom-left corner. The knockout blow came eight minutes later when Georginio Wijnaldum hit the post off Firmino's cutback and Salah followed up on the rebound. The visitors' job then became impossible in the 20th minute when Firmino found Can at the back post to make it 3-0.
As in the first leg, substitute Uth pulled one back for the visitors. The striker came off the bench shortly after Liverpool's third goal, while defender Havard Nordtveit received the hook from Nagelsmann.
After the half-time break, Liverpool still searched for more goals. Defensive midfielder Jordan Henderson beat the unwilling Kevin Vogt in a challenge to run through on goal before unselfishly squaring for Firmino to tap in for a 4-1 lead. Sandro Wagner headed in a consolation for Hoffenheim, while Liverpool barely broke a sweat to secure their place in the Champions League, a place they firmly believe they belong.
2. Klopp's forwards are a match for any opponent in Europe
Despite missing Philippe Coutinho (arguably their best player) due to the ongoing transfer saga, Liverpool still remain one of the most penetrative attacking forces in Europe. They will be a match for any team this season. Defensively, though, teams will still fancy their chances against a shaky back four.
The pace and power of Liverpool's forward trio was the least of Hoffenheim's worries on Wednesday. In addition to attempting to deal with Mane, Salah and Firmino, Wijnaldum and Can consistently made lung-busting late runs into the penalty area. It's a gung-ho approach that might be the sole reason for Klopp's side being able to beat opponents after playing less than a quarter of a match. However, it's also a contributing reason Liverpool have never had a consistently sturdy defense throughout Klopp's reign.
After virtually putting the tie to bed, poor defending from Dejan Lovren led to Uth's goal and planted the tiniest seed of doubt into Liverpool minds, but from there they looked to add to their commanding lead rather than protect what they had. It's probably the best way for Liverpool to set up in games at the moment, both domestically and in Europe.
In Klopp's mind, attack is really the best form of defence.
3. Liverpool must make a genuine run at the Champions League
Liverpool's dearth of participation in the tournament over the past decade will make their task this coming season more difficult. For Thursday's draw they will be placed in Pot 3 along with Tottenham Hotspur, although UEFA rules prohibit teams from the same country being drawn in the same group. Regardless, it is probable that Klopp's side will be drawn with European heavyweights from Pots 1 and 2, perhaps including Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain and/or Borussia Dortmund.
Under Klopp, Liverpool have proven their ability to beat any team on any given day. But so far they haven't had to do so when competing on multiple fronts in a season. The last time they were in the Champions League, then-manager Brendan Rodgers made the unpopular decision to leave out several key players at Real Madrid's Bernabeu ahead of a Premier League encounter with Chelsea the following weekend. Mistakes like that shouldn't happen again.
The competition has been tough for English teams of late, but it should not deter Liverpool from making a good go at it. With Klopp (who guided the club to a Europa League final in his first season) at the helm, who knows how far they can go?