LONDON — Liverpool cruised into the UEFA 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 per cent 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 30.
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.
“We are now top of the table and that will not change,” Klopp told reporters. “That’s good, very important in the busy, busy, busy schedule we have from now on.”
Klopp said there were a lot of positives to take from the win, the only negative being they did not finish the game off sooner.
“Unfortunately, my career is not like this where I can choose, to be honest. I have to take what I get,” he added.
“When we play the competition it’s the most important competition on the planet. Easy as that. But now we play Premier League on Sunday and so that is then the most important competition, definitely.”
Elsewhere, Tomas Soucek struck late again to help West Ham beat TSC Backa Topola 1-0 and advance to the knockout stage of the UEFA Europa League.
The midfielder met Maxwel Cornet´s cross at the far post to volley home the winner in the 89th minute in Serbia.
Soucek, who has scored in five straight games, had snatched a 2-1 victory for West Ham against Burnley with a stoppage-time winner Saturday in the Premier League.
West Ham is tied atop Group A with Germany´s Freiburg, which routed Olympiacos 5-0. Michael Gregoritsch had a hat trick by the 36th minute. Kiliann Sildillia and Ritsu Doan also socred. The winners both have 12 points.
The Hammers need only a point against Freiburg on Dec. 14 in London to win the group and avoid a two-legged playoff in February, AP reported.
Brighton advanced from Group B after Joao Pedro converted from the spot for a 1-0 win over 10-man AEK in Athens.
Pedro was fouled in the box before sending goalkeeper Cican Stankovic the wrong way for his fifth goal of the campaign. The hosts lost midfielder Mijat Ga´cinovi´c to a second yellow card in the 65th minute.
Brighton took a provisional group lead with 10 points with a game to go, leading Marseille by two points. AEK remains on four points in third.
The eight group winners in Europe´s second-tier competition earn a direct place in the last 16 of the competition whereas finishing in second only gets a team a playoff against the clubs who drop into the Europa League as third-place finishers in Champions League groups.
Atalanta advanced directly to the round of 16 despite 1-1 draw at home with Sporting Lisbon. Sporting substitute Marcus answered Gianluca Scamacca´s opening goal. Atalanta won Group D with 11 points. Sporting is second with eight.
In Group C, Lukás Haraslín´s second-half curling shot from the edge of the area led Sparta past Real Betis 1-0 in Prague to keep the Czech team´s home for a top-two finish alive.
Maccabi Haifa remained winless in last place in Group F after a 3-0 loss to Rennes in a game played at the Puskas Arena in Budapest because Israel is not allowed to host UEFA-sanctioned matches due to the war with Hamas.
EUROPA CONFERENCE LEAGUE
Viktoria Plzen remains the only team so far to be guaranteed first place in its group in the third-tier league. The Czechs won 1-0 at Ballkani to make it five wins from five in Group C.
Club Brugge thumped Besiktas 5-0 in Turkey to lead Group D with 13 points. Bodo/Glimt trails by three after a 5-2 win over Lugano.
A first-place finish earns a direct spot in the last 16, while finishing in second takes clubs into a playoff with third-place finishers in the Europa League.