One by one after the final whistle, the Liverpool players made a beeline for Darwin Nunez.
Warm embraces were the order of the day as the Uruguay forward’s smile lit up the Red Bull Arena.
Yes, it is only pre-season and, yes, tougher tests lie ahead, but this was a significant night for Liverpool’s big summer signing.
After firing blanks during the club’s pre-season tour of Asia, he got off the mark in style as he scored four times following his introduction for the second half of Thursday’s 5-0 demolition of RB Leipzig.
The result may have been irrelevant, but the boost to Nunez’s self-belief could prove to be priceless for Jurgen Klopp with the Premier League opener against Fulham a fortnight away.
Klopp had urged supporters not to dwell on the size of the price tag after Liverpool agreed to pay Benfica £64million ($76.7m), potentially rising to a club record £85million, for Nunez’s services. However, that was wishful thinking. The reality is that pressure and scrutiny are unavoidable when you arrive for that kind of money.
All eyes are on Nunez, especially after the summer exit of Sadio Mane, and how he deals with that expectation is as key to his fortunes at Anfield as adjusting to what Klopp wants from him tactically. He will be feeling a lot better after his haul against Leipzig.
The manager insinuated that Nunez had been affected by some of the criticism he had received on social media following his run-outs against Manchester United and Crystal Palace. Trolls with far too much time on their hands had put together clips of his touch letting him down and chances going begging, which went viral. The rush to pass judgment in modern football gets increasingly ridiculous.
Nunez had tweeted the Spanish word resilience (resilience) with a shushing emoji after the game in Singapore. His dynamic display against Leipzig will silence those critics who put the boot in.
“We always think that if you pay a lot of money then the players feel no pressure or whatever,” says Klopp. “They are all completely normal human beings and when the first touch is not perfect then…
“This generation of players read social media, which is really not smart, but they do. All of a sudden you get in a rush and these kinds of things.
“This is the best way obviously to stop all these discussions. He’s a different striker to what we have or what we had, but he’s a really good one.”
Having operated with a false No 9 for so long, Klopp’s Liverpool now have an authentic centre-forward in Nunez.
Roberto Firmino, who looks rejuvenated after the summer break, had performed well during a first half that saw him lay on the opener for Mohamed Salah. The long-serving Brazil forward will have an important role to play this season.
However, Nunez’s arrival after the break provided Liverpool with a new dimension. His first goal was a gift from Salah, who presented him with the penalty after Luis Diaz had been brought down by Janis Blaswich. The goalkeeper got a hand to it but Nunez had struck the ball with sufficient power and accuracy to find the net.
Time to enjoy @Darwinn99‘s first-ever hat-trick for the Reds ⚽⚽⚽ pic.twitter.com/vztvgVwHzx
— Liverpool FC (@LFC) July 21, 2022
“I’m not sure if there’s a clause in Mo’s new contract to be as generous as hell but he gave Darwin the penalty,” said Klopp. “Then the box was opened and it was the perfect night for him.” Do not expect Salah to be handed over responsibility from 12 yards when the serious stuff starts.
Nunez’s second showcased the kind of technique and clinical streak that saw him score 34 goals for Benfica last season. The pressing of midfield duo Jordan Henderson and Thiago won back possession and Trent Alexander-Arnold nudged it invitingly into Nunez’s path. His pace took him clear and he steadied himself before driving low into the bottom corner.
Next, there was Nunez the predator, in the right place at the right time to divert home Harvey Elliott’s cross with his left boot from close range. The opening had been created by the work rate and persistence of academy teenager Stefan Bajcetic, who is grasping the opportunities of pre-season to enhance his reputation.
Nunez’s skill set means Liverpool can attack with greater variety. They can be more direct with balls in behind for him to chase with his speed and power, and they can sling crosses into the box for him to attack. One powerful header from James Milner’s delivery forced a flying save.
Having used 32 players in each of the games in Asia, there was more structure and fluency to this contest. After making four changes at the break, Klopp replaced the other seven members of his starting lineup for the final half-hour.
There was no let-up for Leipzig as Elliott and Fabio Carvalho continued where they left off in Singapore.
Nunez made intelligent runs either side of the centre-backs and his fourth goal arrived after he was picked out by Carvalho on the left side of the box. He opened his body up in an attempt to find the far corner and did so as the ball squirmed through the keeper’s grasp.
“Everybody is really happy for him,” says Joel Matip. “Great finish, great speed — it will be really difficult for our opponents.”
Nunez is up and running.
(Top photo: Boris Streubel/Getty Images)