Nunez brace helps Liverpool sink Sparta as Salah returns

Liverpool’s Egyptian striker #11 Mohamed Salah (R) vies for the ball during the UEFA Europa League round of 16 first leg football match between AC Sparta Praha and Liverpool FC in Prague on March 7, 2024. AFP

Darwin Nunez’s brace lifted Liverpool within sight of the Europa League quarter-finals as they swept to a 5-1 win in the last 16 first leg at Sparta Prague on Thursday.

Star striker Mohamed Salah returned to the squad as a second-half substitute from an injury that had restrained him to only play 46 minutes for Liverpool since his early retreat from the Africa Cup of Nations in January.

“Sparta took risks, we punished them for that,” said Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp.

“We scored wonderful goals and we had really good moments in the game.”

Alexis Mac Allister opened the score against the reigning Czech champions and top flight leaders with a sixth minute penalty after being brought down by Asger Sorensen in the box.

Nunez added a second with a long-range shot from outside the box over diving Sparta goalkeeper Peter Vindahl in the 25th minute.

The Uruguay striker made it 3-0 in first half stoppage time with a low blast from just inside the box to the far post.

“He has the most important attitude a striker needs to have in these chances,” said Klopp.

“He’s just a constant threat and he gives us some spaces and areas and options.”

Conor Bradley came on as a half-time substitute and the game turned sour for him 40 seconds later as he slammed Sparta winger Veljko Birmancevic’s cross into his own net.

Luis Diaz, however, made it 4-1 on 53 minutes, beating Vindahl with a deflected shot and Dominik Szoboszlai, also returning from injury as a second-half substitute, rounded off the score in the stoppage time.

‘Happy about the result’

Salah found the net six minutes from time but his goal was disallowed as VAR caught him offside.

Liverpool have all but secured a place in the March 15 draw for the quarter-finals, which will also reveal their potential semi-final opponents.

The Reds controlled much of the game while Sparta relied largely on breaks.

The hosts came close several times but goalkeeper Caoimhin Kelleher stopped unmarked Lukas Haraslin’s close-range effort with his fingertips and Birmancevic then missed a gaping net.

“The result’s much better than the performance,” said Klopp.

“Our protection was not good and so they could create these counter-attacks. We lost a few unnecessary balls which is then difficult to protect.”

“We made mistakes, that’s human, but we fought really hard and I saw in the dressing room afterwards the boys felt the intensity of the game and were happy about the result.”

Klopp made three changes from Saturday’s Premier League game against Nottingham Forest.

Captain Virgil van Dijk only came on as a second-half substitute with Andrew Robertson wearing the band on his Europa League debut.

Liverpool are eyeing a remarkable quadruple in Klopp’s final season as manager at Anfield as they have won the League Cup and are through to the last eight of the FA Cup.

They also top the Premier League, one point ahead of Manchester City whom they face on Sunday.

Roma hammer Brighton to put one foot in Europa League last eight

Roma put one foot in the quarter-finals of the Europa League on Thursday after hammering Brighton 4-0 as Daniele De Rossi dominated his good friend Roberto De Zerbi.

First-half goals from star strike pairing Paulo Dybala and Romelu Lukaku gave Roma the platform for a convincing last 16, first-leg win over their Premier League opponents at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome.

Gianluca Mancini and Bryan Cristante completed the rout as Roma continued to love life after Jose Mourinho and with their former captain De Rossi, who has turned his boyhood club’s season around in less than two months.

A thumping eighth win in 10 matches for De Rossi since replacing Mourinho in January has Roma all-but in the last eight before next week’s second leg in England.

“All teams have hard periods, it’s not like I’ve done anything special,” said De Rossi to Sky Sport.

“I’m very happy but they’re really good players. They’re winning matches that they should be winning… It’s a good team and it wins matches, I’m not doing anything out of the ordinary.”

De Rossi’s expansive style of play is inspired by De Zerbi, and both men are also close friends to the point that their daughters meet in London to watch Roma matches.

They will have been impressed with what Roma served up in front of their raucous support, who made a huge racket while their team racked up the goals in a way that would have been almost unthinkable under Mourinho.

“It’s difficult to explain. He’s a coach with very good ideas, he’s surprised me. He’s also a very positive person who helps the team to believe in itself,” said Mile Svilar to Sky.

Brighton are in their first-ever European knockout tie and their inexperience showed against Roma who have gone deep in both the Europa and Champions League in recent seasons, as well as winning the inaugural Europa Conference League under Mourinho.

Roma dominate Brighton 

“The only positive thing is that I lost to a friend, imagine how bad it would have been to lose like that to someone I didn’t like,” De Zerbi told reporters.

“I think today will teach something to everyone from the president down… It will help my players because when you have regrets you know exactly what to expect the next time.”

Roma started off on the front foot and could have been ahead with less than three minutes on the clock when Jason Steele did brilliantly to keep out Romelu Lukaku’s close-range header.

Lukaku scuffed wide shortly afterwards, before Evan Ndicka nearly handed Brighton the lead in the seventh minute by diverting Simon Adingra’s cross onto his own post.

But Dybala did strike first blood for the hosts in the 13th minute, and it was a brilliant goal.

The Argentina forward raced through unopposed to meet Leandro Paredes’ superb through ball before skipping past Steele and rolling home a finish, which was initially ruled out for offside but then given after a VAR check to the delight of home fans.

Roma were much the better team but Danny Welbeck twice forced excellent saves from Adingra crosses.

The second save in first-half stoppage time made sure that Roma were two goals to the good at the break, after Lukaku had shortly before robbed Lewis Dunk and rammed home his second goal in as many games.

Welbeck sliced another good chance wide in the 57th minute and seven minutes later Mancini got on the end of Stephan El Shaarawy’s inswinging cross to poke in Roma’s third.

Brighton were reeling and Cristante gave De Zerbi’s team a mountain to climb, heading home another pinpoint El Shaarawy cross at the end of a sweeping Roma move which highlighted the difference between the two sides.

The Roma fans were in fine voice and will start to dream of getting to Dublin in May, after having already seen their team get to European finals in the last two seasons.

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