LIVERPOOL, England — Juergen Klopp had just seen his Liverpool team slice open Hoffenheim to score a third goal in the opening 21 minutes when he turned to the celebrating Anfield crowd and roared: “That’s football!”
Liverpool returned to the Champions League group stage in some style on Wednesday.
With the attacking trio of Roberto Firmino, Mo Salah and Sadio Mane combining brilliantly, Liverpool beat Hoffenheim 4-2 with a devastating attacking display to seal a return to Europe’s elite club competition after a two-year absence.
The Reds advanced 6-3 on aggregate in the qualifying playoff and will be placed in the pot of third seeds in Thursday’s draw.
“The start of the game was like a thunderstorm,” Klopp said. “We were so dangerous, so clinical. We could have scored even more.”
Hoffenheim is playing in European competition for the first time in its history this season and was swept away on another atmospheric night at Anfield.
Emre Can scored goals either side of Salah’s tap-in as Liverpool surged 3-0 ahead. The third goal was masterful, with Mane breaking clear, cutting inside and backheeling the ball to Firmino, whose cross to the far post was tucked home on the volley by Can.
“I think we’ve scored a few nice goals,” Klopp said of his nearly two years in charge, “but that was outstanding.”
With his team now needing five goals to progress, Hoffenheim’s 30-year-old coach, Julian Nagelsmann, threw on an extra attacker in the 24th minute and Mark Uth had an immediate impact, drilling a low shot into the corner four minutes later.
Neither defense covered itself in glory in the first half, and the goals kept coming after halftime. Jordan Henderson robbed Hoffenheim captain Kevin Vogt to run through on goal, before passing across for Firmino to slot into the bottom corner in the 63rd.
“He was impossible to defend,” Klopp said of Firmino, his deep-lying striker.
Sandro Wagner headed in a late goal for Hoffenheim.
“We were running around like headless chickens,” Nagelsmann said of his team’s display in the first 30 minutes, “and they were scoring the kind of goals they always score in the Premier League.”
“Sometimes,” he added, “you just have to admit your opponent is better.”
Liverpool produced its exhilarating performance without star playmaker Philippe Coutinho, who remains unavailable — officially because he is both ill and injured — amid sustained interest from Barcelona.
On this evidence, the Reds don’t need him, although their defensive frailties were exposed again, especially on the flank of left back Alberto Moreno.
Liverpool joins Chelsea, Tottenham, Manchester City and Europa League winner Manchester United as part of a five-strong English representation in the group stage.
Here’s a look at the other second legs in the playoffs:
At the fourth time of asking, Qarabag has made it through Champions League qualifying to become Azerbaijan’s first representative in the group stage.
Qarabag was beaten 2-1 at FC Copenhagen but advanced on away goals, with the score 2-2 on aggregate. Dino Ndlovu’s 63rd-minute goal proved decisive for the visitors, who had never previously progressed beyond the third round of qualifying.
Federico Santander and Andrija Pavlovic scored for Copenhagen, which has to settle for a place in the Europa League.
Apoel Nicosia produced one of the most unlikely Champions League story lines in recent times in 2012 by becoming the first Cypriot team to reach the quarterfinals.
It is back in the group stage after drawing 0-0 at Slavia Prague on Wednesday, securing a 2-0 win on aggregate.
SPORTING, CSKA ADVANCE
CSKA Moscow reached the group stage for the fifth straight year and Portuguese team Sporting made it there for the third time in the last four seasons.
Georgi Schennikov and Alan Dzagoev scored for CSKA in a 2-0 win over Swiss team Young Boys, completing a 3-0 aggregate win.
Sporting scored five goals away from home in a UEFA competition for the first time since 1986 in winning 5-1 at FCSB, the Romanian club formally known as Steaua Bucharest. It was the same score on aggregate.
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Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80