Five time European champions Liverpool blew away Hoffenheim in a dramatic first-half at Anfield to secure a place in the Champions League group stage for the first time since 2014.

Leading 2-1 from the first-leg the Reds raced in to a 3-0 second-leg lead inside the opening 21 minutes as Emre Can scored twice either side of Mohamed Salah’s first Anfield goal. Hoffenheim were forced to chase the game, with first half substitute Mark Uth scoring in the 28th minute, just four minutes after coming on.

“we played a near perfect half-hour. nobody will want to play liverpool.” – jurgen klopp

But former Hoffenheim player Roberto Firmino’s second-half goal gave Liverpool a 4-1 lead on the night, extending their aggregate advantage to 6-2 and putting the game beyond doubt. Sandro Wagner netted a late consolation for Julian Nagelsmann’s team.

“I think we played a near perfect half-hour”, said Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp.

“We are excited to see who we will draw. Nobody will want to play Liverpool.”

The five time winners will be joined in the hat for the group-stage draw by Azerbaijani debutants Qarabag who reached the main draw for the first time despite losing their second-leg tie 2-1 away to Copenhagen. Dino Ndlovu’s 63rd minute goal was enough to send Qarabag through courtesy of the away goal rule.

Elsewhere in the play-off round Scottish champions Celtic survived a scare from Kazakh champions Astana to secure their progress.

Leading 5-0 from the first-leg the Bhoys trailed 4-1 after 69 minutes at the Astana Arena, although Scott Sinclair’s away goal still gave them comfortable breathing space. A late rally was not enough to prevent Celtic losing the second-leg 4-3 but did see them ease through to the group-stage 8-4 on aggregate.

“We were disappointing tonight but across the qualifying campaign the players have been absolutely first class”, claimed Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers.

Portugal’s Sporting Lisbon also advanced after producing a stunning second-leg performance in Bucharest, thrashing Steau 5-1 at the National Stadium following a drab 0-0 draw eight days earlier in Lisbon, while Sevilla saw off a spirited two-leg performance from Turkish newcomers Istanbul Buyuks to reach the main-draw 4-3 on aggregate after the two sides drew the second-leg in Seville 2-2 on Tuesday.

Olympiakos, Maribor, Napoli, CSKA Moscow and Apoel Nicosia also made it through to the draw for the group-stage, where they will be joined by defending champions Real Madrid, beaten finalists Juventus and Europa League winners Manchester United, as well as other European heavyweights such as Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Paris Saint Germain plus tournament new boys RB Leipzig, who finished runners-up in the Bundesliga last season.

The draw takes place on Thursday (24th August) at 16:30 GMT.

Alistair Sargent (Editor, Sport)

(Picture – Isriya Paireepairit)

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