If the best way of breaking into a team is making yourself undroppable, Diogo Jota is surely a nailed-on Liverpool starter now.
The Premier League champions’ trip to Bergamo to face a free-scoring, fearless Atalanta side was billed as a Champions League night that could provide explosive entertainment.
That promise was delivered, but not in the end-to-end fashion many had expected.
Firmino came off the bench but did little to suggest he is close to rediscovering his best (Photo: Reuters)
Instead, Jota used the occasion as his personal audition for the role of Liverpool No 9, and the superb hat-trick he produced will make it very difficult for Jurgen Klopp not to promote him from Roberto Firmino’s understudy and give him the part full-time.
Klopp’s decision to trust in the Portuguese forward from the start came after a run of three goals in three games from the 23-year-old, including a late winner against West Ham on the weekend.
But a strong start became a phenomenal one after he demonstrated wonderful variety with his trio of strikes.
For the first, Jota showed strength to hold off Jose Palomino before tricking the goalkeeper with a delightful dinked finish.
His second was all about power and placement, as he simultaneously controlled a long ball and cut inside his marker with his first touch, before banging a low shot into the bottom corner.
Jota replaced Firmino in Liverpool’s front three and did not disappoint (Photo:
The third, which came after his partners in crime Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane had got in on the fun with goals early in the second half, displayed the pace required to reach a through ball before the outrushing keeper, and the composure to take it round him and finish.
There was only one regret to Jota’s night. When he was replaced midway through the second half, it was to the whispering silence of a stunned Gewiss Stadium, where even the home staff and partisan local press pack had been silenced by the finishing clinic Jota had put on.
Much of the pre-match focus centred around how a patched-up Liverpool defence would fare against an Atalanta side that scored 98 Serie A goals last season.
The Reds came into the game with the statistical anomaly of having the second-worst defensive record in the Premier League, shipping 15 goals in seven games, yet being one of just three Champions League sides yet to concede after two rounds.
With Virgil van Dijk and Fabinho out, Joel Matip only fit enough for the bench and Nat Phillips unregistered in Europe, Klopp chose 19-year-old Rhys Williams to partner Joe Gomez against the Atalanta artillery, just the youngster’s fifth senior appearance for the club.
But from moment the ominous toll of a nearby church bell signaled the start of the match, it was clear that the evening would be all about Liverpool’s strength in attack, not their problems in defence.
Jota made his intentions clear as early as the second minute, when he glided past Hans Hateboer and had a low shot well saved by the outrushing Marco Sportiello.
An engaging opening 15 minutes saw Mane and Curtis Jones have shots saved for the visitors, while Luis Muriel’s weak effort failed to trouble Alisson Becker, and a goal felt like it was coming by the time Jota’s delicate chip nestled in the net.
The shellshocked hosts had no answer to the ferocity of the Liverpool players, whose loud and urgent voices drowned out their beleaguered opponents as they rang around the stadium.
Jota’s explosive second saw Atalanta heads drop further, almost as if they were contemplating the variety of threat that they faced, and their capitulation was completed within four second half minutes.
Salah was given the freedom of Bergamo to break upfield and score after the hosts over-committed to a corner, notching his 21st Champions League goal for Liverpool to become the club’s joint-highest scorer in the competition alongside Steven Gerrard.
Mane put the result beyond doubt with a neat lofted finish beyond Sportiello after latching onto a Salah pass, and Jota had his third of the night – and his side’s fifth – tucked away by the 55th minute.
The home side were eventually sparked into life after all hope was lost, as Duvan Zapata curled a shot off the inside of the post, before twice being denied by good Alisson saves.