London (AFP) – Roberto Firmino has become accustomed to living in the shadow of Mohamed Salah such has been the impact of the Egyptian’s stunning 43-goal first season at Anfield.
It was no different last week when Salah tore his former employers Roma to shreds, scoring twice and setting up two more goals as Liverpool stormed to a 5-2 lead in the first leg of their Champions League semi-final.
However, Firmino also had two goals and two assists to his name on a night that will go down in an already storied history of famous European nights at Anfield, and the important role the Brazilian plays in knitting together a prolific front three, also including Sadio Mane, is becoming harder to ignore.
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp has been Firmino’s foremost fan. Even as Salah was rewriting the history books for his goalscoring, Klopp claimed earlier this season Salah was not “world-class pretty much every day” like his team-mate.
Liverpool’s ability to tie Firmino down to a new five-year contract, announced on Sunday, was a huge sign of intent, not just ahead of Wednesday’s second leg in Rome, but looking further ahead to a bright future under Klopp.
“This is one very important step, absolutely,” said the German.
“This constant discussion about whether he’s under-valued or whatever in public, this never happened for one second either in the club or in the team.”
That change in public perception was beginning to pose a threat for Liverpool. According to the Football Leaks website, Firmino’s previous contract that ran until 2020 had a 98-million-euro (£86 million, $119 million) buyout clause.
Given the rampant inflation in transfer fees over the past year following Firmino’s international team-mate Neymar’s 222-million-euro move to Barcelona, that price tag was unlikely to put off potential suitors.
“He feels completely comfortable and is planning for the long term here,” added Klopp.
“That’s becoming rare because if you are not (at) Barcelona or not Real Madrid, then there’s usually another club somewhere you can go to.
“It’s really good news for us. He’s absolutely a big factor in our future.”
– Attack best form of defence –
In recent years Liverpool have struggled to keep hold of their best players when the European elite have come calling. Philippe Coutinho followed Luis Suarez’s path from Anfield to Barcelona in January.
Changing that culture by holding onto the chemistry between Firmino, Salah and Mane is key to Klopp’s ambitions of reviving Liverpool’s former glories.
“We all know how big Liverpool is,” said Firmino. “It is a club with a lot of tradition, so I hope to continue with the whole team going forward, dreaming aloud and aiming very high.
“Hopefully we will be able to win titles, that’s the most important thing for us.”
One very big title could be less than a month away should Liverpool resist the sort of Roman revival that did for Barcelona in the quarter-finals.
Despite a three-goal lead, attack seems the best form of defence for a Liverpool side that has already scored 39 goals in the Champions League this season.
Firmino has netted 10 and assisted seven of those, but, more than merely goals, it is his high-energy pressing game and ability to defend from the front that Klopp and others so admire.
“When I watch Liverpool he is absolutely the catalyst for me in terms of everything they do,” said former Manchester United captain Gary Neville in picking Firmino ahead of champions Manchester City’s top scorer Sergio Aguero in his Premier League team of the year.
“He’s not bothered about hard work, which is another important thing,” added Klopp. “(In) the last game, Roberto had the highest distance covered. For an offensive player that is pretty rare in world football.”