Four months after asking to leave Liverpool, Philippe Coutinho scored a hat-trick wearing the captain's armband to propel the club into the Champions League knockout stage on a record-setting night for English soccer. The Brazil playmaker headlined a devastating display by Liverpool in its 7-0 thrashing of Spartak Moscow at Anfield on Wednesday, with the other three members of the attacking "Fab 4" — Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah — also scoring.
Coutinho started the season in a dispute with Liverpool, which refused to sell him to Barcelona following repeated bids by the Spanish team in August. The fact that he was handed the armband by coach Juergen Klopp against Spartak is a sign of the reconciliation between the two parties, even though speculation continues about a renewed bid by Barcelona in January.
Liverpool fans are just enjoying him while they can. And who knows how far Coutinho can take the team in Europe's top competition this season?
This win — its second 7-0 in the group stage — saw Liverpool top Group E and become the fifth English team to qualify for the last 16. It is the first time a country has had five representatives in the Champions League knockout stage, signalling a revival by the English after a period of underachievement since Chelsea was European champion in 2012.
Liverpool was one of four English teams to qualify in first place, along with Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham, and its tally of 23 group-stage goals is the second-highest in the competition's history, only behind Paris Saint-Germain's 25 from this season too.
Spartak arrived in the northwest of England still in with a chance of qualifying. The Russian team left in humiliation ripped apart by Liverpool's attacking quartet.
"When it was 6-0," Klopp said, "we were looking at each other (on the Liverpool bench) and saying, 'How did this happen?'"
Coutinho scored his first hat-trick for Liverpool and it started when he stroked home a penalty after Georgi Dzhikiya tugged Salah in the penalty area. Liverpool had failed to score its last four penalties at Anfield, including attempts by Firmino and James Milner in the Champions League.
Coutinho completed a team move involving Mane, Salah and Firmino with a low left-foot finish into the corner to make it 2-0 in the 15th, and more dreadful defending from Spartak led to a third goal three minutes later.
Mane pounced on a mistake by Dzhikiya, ran up the right wing and sent in a cross that Spartak defender Serdar Tasci could only block with his chest. Firmino latched onto the loose ball and curled home a shot with the outside of his right foot.
Liverpool squandered a three-goal lead with a second-half collapse at Sevilla two weeks ago, which cost them a chance to clinch first place with a round to spare, but there was to be no repeat here.
Milner, on as a substitute, crossed from the left for Mane to meet with a fierce volley past goalkeeper Aleksandr Selikhov in the 47th.
Coutinho completed his hat-trick three minutes later by firing in a shot that deflected off Salvatore Bocchetti and flew inside the near post, leaving Selikhov wrong-footed.
Mane bundled in substitute Daniel Sturridge's cross for the sixth and Salah, the Premier League's top scorer, got in on the act in the 86th with some great footwork and a finish high into the net.
"I can't explain it," said Spartak coach Massimo Carrera. "They almost played like they were afraid of Liverpool."
Liverpool, which is in the knockout stage of the Champions League for the first time in nine years, could still be paired with Real Madrid, Juventus or Bayern Munich in Monday's draw for the last 16.
The negatives for Liverpool were the yellow card for Emre Can, which rules him out of the first leg of the last 16, and a first-half injury to left-back Alberto Moreno that could force him out of the Merseyside derby against Everton on Sunday.
Spartak finished third in the group and dropped into the Europa League.