In the home dressing room on Monday afternoon, Christoph Freund did not hesitate when delivering his response.
“Sadio Mane,” came the answer from Red Bull Salzburg’s sporting director when The Independent enquired as to the greatest player the club – one of the premier development hubs in world football – has exported.
“He is at the highest level, he is European champion and he is the best player in the world this year. Even Messi wasn’t happy that he only finished fourth in the Ballon d’Or rankings.”
Freund also referenced Naby Keita, another former alumnus, as an example of Salzburg’s skill in spotting potential early and harnessing it superbly.
But it was that pair, who provoke so much pride at the Austrian side, who were pivotal to them crashing out of the Champions League as the European champions pulled off another late, great, group escape for a third consecutive campaign.
“It’s always nice to come back because it’s where everything started for me,” Mane said in the aftermath. “I’m grateful to everyone. Sorry, guys, but this is football.”
Two years ago, Liverpool needed to avoid getting beat by Spartak Moscow to progress and battered them 7-0. They had to overcome Napoli last season and managed a 1-0 victory in the defining game of Alisson’s Anfield career to date.
Salzburg were not lacking in confidence heading into the decisive encounter, but the visitors had the mental advantage of these experiences. And, ultimately, an overflow of class.
To borrow Jurgen Klopp’s parlance, Jesse Marsch’s charges possess “football arrogance” and why wouldn’t they given their cocktail of technical ability, tenacity and bravery on the ball?
They were excellent, but they were also up against a relentless machine that refuse to countenance not achieving their ambitions.
It took just two minutes on Tuesday evening for the rapid, well-coached hosts to demonstrate how arduous Liverpool’s task would be and for Virgil van Dijk to showcase why he is the best defender in the world, making crucial interventions to deny Erling Haaland and Hwang Hee-Chan.
It took even less time for the Premier League leaders to remind their opponents and the rest of Europe why they are the continent’s supreme side.
With 57 minutes on the clock, Keita headed in Mane’s cross after a fine attack that featured both fullbacks to finally break the deadlock.
Sixty seconds later, Mohamed Salah, who had been swerving scoring sitters all night, served up a phenomenal finish with his weaker foot from a preposterous angle to take the game and the tournament away from Salzburg.
It was a prime Liverpool performance – nullifying dangerous opponents before knocking them out – much to the chagrin of the rest of the teams still in the Champions League.
“It was like a heavyweight fight,” Marsch said. “We punched but then they punched us twice more.”
“I couldn’t have more respect for what Salzburg are doing,” Klopp said post-match. “I really love it. But I love that my team are so smart, they listen and they put in a shift like that.”
Salzburg got schooled on the pitch and off it too, with 19-year-old Haaland learning that public overconfidence is not a good look.
The prolific striker, pursued by almost every elite club, predicted a 3-1 win for Austria’s champions, courtesy of a hat-trick for himself.
“Haaland recognised that playing attack against van Dijk is a bit different,” Klopp piercingly put it.
Instead, the teenager will now have to do his damage in the Europa League as Liverpool plot a third consecutive final appearance.