Don’t ever doubt Roberto Firmino’s importance to this Liverpool team.
The Reds remain the Kings of Europe, coming from behind to beat Chelsea on penalties in the UEFA Super Cup, after a pulsating 2-2 draw in Istanbul.
But it took the Brazilian’s arrival to get them back on track, after a dreadful opening 45 minutes at Vodafone Park.
Mane’s best friend? Firmino certainly brought the best out of Sadio here. Liverpool’s No.10 scored twice, but both goals were made by their brilliant No.9.
Talk about making an impact off the bench. Jurgen Klopp’s side had looked all at sea in an error-strewn first-half, trailing to Olivier Giroud’s goal and lucky not to fall further behind before the break.
The introduction of Firmino at half-time, though, changed everything.
Within three minutes of the restart, he’d laid on Liverpool’s leveller for Mane in typically-classy fashion. The European champions, reinvigorated, would have won it before the end of 90 minutes were it not for Kepa Arrizabalaga’s wondrous double-save, which denied first Mohamed Salah and then Virgil van Dijk.
Think Jim Montgomery, the great Sunderland goalkeeper, in the 1973 FA Cup final and you’re halfway there.
If that was the standout moment of the second half, though, then there was no doubt who the standout player was. N’Golo Kante had bossed the opening 45 minutes, dominating midfield and making a mockery of those pre-match fitness concerns. The Frenchman was brilliant, but it was Firmino who ran the show thereafter. Liverpool, quite simply, look a different team when he is fit and firing.
The 27-year-old has looked razor sharp since his return to club action earlier this month, buoyed no doubt by his Copa America triumph with Brazil in the summer, and he continued his form here. His intelligent movement, subtle touches and awareness of team-mates’ positions make him one of the world’s premier centre-forwards, and they were all on display as he dragged Chelsea’s defence all over the Turkish capital.
Liverpool had been poor before his emergence, overrun in midfield and struggling to make their new high defensive line work. Chelsea, like Manchester City and Norwich before them, found it worryingly easy to break in behind Klopp’s side, with even Van Dijk looking troubled.
In an attacking sense, the Reds had been similarly loose. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had been handed his first competitive start in 16 months but, one pass to Salah aside, could make little impression on proceedings. It may have looked harsh, but it was no surprise to see him replaced at the interval.
With Firmino on, and with Mane switched to the left, Liverpool looked like themselves again. The high line remained, and in truth it will still need some work, but at the other end their three amigos could wreak havoc.
The combination was there for the equaliser, Firmino collecting Fabinho’s lifted pass and knocking it sideways for Mane to force home, and it was there in extra time as Liverpool took the lead too. This time, Mane fed Firmino down the left before arriving perfectly to slam the Brazilian’s return pass into the roof of the net.
That’s Liverpool, in many ways. They don’t always have to be at their best to cut teams open. They weren’t at their best here, for sure – loose in possession, unnerved at the back and, dare we say, outdone in terms of energy as well. Chelsea, chastened at Old Trafford on Sunday, did Frank Lampard proud here.
In the end, though, it was to be decided by penalties. Firmino, naturally, buried the first one for Liverpool. Tammy Abraham missed the last one for Chelsea. Adrian, on his first Liverpool start, was the hero. Klopp, speaking to BT Sport at the end, dug out his best Rocky impression to celebrate.
Deep down, though, he knows the true architect of this win. If ever there was a night to underline Firmino's importance, this was it.