The biggest challenge in Liverpool’s Champions League group – as Jürgen Klopp had labelled an away game at Atalanta – proved no challenge at all. It was a demolition, an exhibition, with Diogo Jota’s hat-trick the individual highlight of a collective statement against last season’s quarter-finalists.
Jota became the third Liverpool player after Michael Owen and Sadio Mané to register a hat-trick on the road in Europe in only his fifth start for the club. Mané scored too, as did Mohamed Salah to equal Steven Gerrard’s record of 21 Champions League goals for Liverpool.
The rout could have been greater, but there was no need for nit-picking on the night Klopp’s team took complete control of their group with a third straight win and clean sheet.
“Everything I said before the game [about Atalanta] is still 100% true,” the Liverpool manager insisted. “I am in the business long enough to see when another team is playing good football and can cause each team in the world problems. That didn’t change because of the game and the result tonight.
“We are good as well. We know that but we have to fulfil our potential, and that’s what the boys did. We defended Atalanta on an incredibly high level and played top football ourselves.”
Atalanta have a well-founded reputation for free-scoring and open football. They were certainly open in Bergamo, sliced open too, but the only threat they posed was at 5-0 down and after Klopp had started making changes in readiness for Sunday’s trip to Manchester City.
There was still a third of the game remaining when the substitutions began, such was Liverpool’s unrivalled superiority in every department. The Premier League leaders stretched the Italian side with long, first-time balls and were granted so much space to dominate midfield by a passive, clumsy opponent. Curtis Jones took full advantage and played with the composure and intelligence of the two more experienced midfielders alongside him, Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum. But the night belonged to the confident, clinical Jota.
It was no great surprise that the Liverpool manager started the £41m signing from Wolves at the expense of Roberto Firmino, who has been almost ever-present in European competition for Klopp but has looked jaded of late.
“Without Bobby Firmino we would not be in the Champions League even,” the manager reminded everyone afterwards. His replacement was almost on the scoresheet again after 86 seconds when he collected Jones’s pass, beat two defenders and drew a low save from Marco Sportiello. The Portugal international did not wait much longer to score for the fourth straight game.
Jota’s opener demonstrated the understanding he has quickly developed with his teammates and prowess in front of goal. Trent Alexander-Arnold spotted the striker peeling off the shoulder of José Luis Palomino and pierced the home defence with a superb ball. Jota took it in his stride and, shrugging off Palomino’s attempts to haul him back inside the area, clipped an impudent finish over the advancing Sportiello and inside the far corner.
His second of the night was equally exquisite. This time Joe Gomez was the provider with a sweeping pass over Hans Hateboer into the area. Jota controlled first time with his left foot, turning the ball back across the midfielder in the process, before driving an unstoppable finish inside Sportiello’s near post with his right.
The prolific Atalanta team that scored 98 goals in Serie A last season never showed. Liverpool did not allow it, and the Italian team were made to resemble European novices as the visitors punished their mistakes and cut through a ponderous defence almost at will in the second half.
Salah scored his ninth of the season when Jones cleared a poorly-taken corner by Alejandro Gómez and the striker found himself bearing down on goal with Hateboer for company. The Egypt forward stepped inside the midfielder on to his left foot and beat the Atalanta keeper with an emphatic finish.
Mané joined his fellow forwards on the scoresheet when Salah, seizing on a loose Atalanta throw, sent him sprinting clear on the left. Sportiello effectively showed the striker where to shoot by rushing from his goal-line and diving early, and Mané duly clipped the ball over the advancing keeper.
Jota claimed a deserved hat-trick, and Liverpool’s fifth, with 36 minutes remaining. The striker timed his run behind Palomino to perfection to meet Mané’s inviting pass. Sportiello was again out quickly, and again beaten as Jota dragged the ball past him before converting into an empty net.
Rout over, Klopp withdrew Jota, Henderson, Robertson, Alexander-Arnold and Wijnaldum in readiness for City. Duván Zapata, the Atalanta centre-forward, finally came to life after Liverpool’s raft of substitutions but was denied by the inside of a post and two strong saves from Alisson.
Another Champions League clean sheet for an injury-hit defence containing the inexperienced Rhys Williams was an added bonus for Klopp. “I cannot imagine being 19 years old and playing my second professional football game in the Champions League against Zapata,” the Liverpool manager said. “I would have been nervous like hell, but the boy was not. I couldn’t be more happy for Rhys. You should see him in the dressing room, you’d need something special to get the smile off his face.”