ZURICH (Reuters) - Liverpool scored three goals in 12 dramatic first-half minutes, two of them from Emre Can, on their way to a hugely entertaining 4-2 win over Hoffenheim which took them back to the Champions League group stage after a two-season absence on Wednesday.
Portugal’s Sporting also went on the rampage, scoring four times in the last half hour to beat former European champions Steaua Bucharest, now known as FCSB, 5-1 away after they had been held 0-0 at home in the first leg.
Qarabag became the first team from Azerbaijan to reach the group stage when they qualified on away goals after losing 2-1 away to FC Copenhagen, while APOEL Nicosia and CSKA Moscow also went through.
Liverpool, 6-3 winners on aggregate, last played in the group stage in 2014-15 and their presence means the English Premier League will have five of the 32 teams after Manchester United qualified as Europa League winners.
There was a huge amount at stake in Wednesday’s games as teams who take part in the group stage receive a minimum fixed payment of 12.7 million euros (11.71 million pounds), with bonuses of 1.5 million euros per win and 500,000 euros for a draw.
Teams also receive money from the market pool which can vary from anything between 1.4 million euros to more than 50 million depending on the size of the market in the club’s respective country.
Liverpool, already leading 2-1 from the first leg, looked like scoring every time they attacked against Hoffenheim and could easily have hit double figures although their defence looked vulnerable.
Can broke through in the 10th minute when his shot was deflected off Kevin Vogt and beat Oliver Baumann inside his near post, the start of a long night for the Hoffenheim goalkeeper.
Mohamed Salah stroked in the second in the 18th minute when Georginio Wijnaldum’s shot hit the post and rebounded to the Egyptian in an unmarked position, then Can, also left alone, turned in Robert Firmino’s pass three minutes later.
Hoffenheim coach Julian Nagelsmann quickly made a tactical substitution, replacing Havard Nordtveit with Mark Uth, who almost immediately pulled one back with an angled shot.
The Germans began to look threatening as Serge Gnabry twice went close and Uth forced Simon Mignolet to prevent a second goal which could have changed the complexion of the game.
Firmino ended Hoffenheim’s hopes in the 64th minute with an easy finish after Vogt was dispossessed by Jordan Henderson, before Sandro Wagner headed one more for Hoffenheim.
Seydou Doumbia gave Sporting an early lead in Bucharest but Brazilian Junior Morais quickly replied for Steaua, who then put the visitors under pressure.
The turning point came on the hour when Marcos Acuna latched onto a Bruno Fernandes through ball, goalkeeper Florin Nita was caught in no man’s land and the Argentine scored coolly.
FCSB lost their composure as Gelson Martins, Bas Dost and Rodrigo Battaglia added further goals.
South African Dino Ndlovu was Qarabag’s hero as he scored in the 63rd minute, his fourth goal of the competition, to cancel out Federico Santander’s scrambled opener for FC Copenhagen on the stroke of halftime.
Andrija Pavlovic rekindled Copenhagen’s hopes by scoring in the 66th minute but Qarabag held out for a 2-2 aggregate draw to qualify on away goals thanks to Ndlovu’s effort.
Georgi Shchennikov and Alan Dzagoev gave CSKA Moscow a 2-0 win over Young Boys (3-0 on aggregate) and APOEL Nicosia’s 0-0 draw at Slavia Prague was enough for them to qualify for the third time (2-0) and complete the line-up for Thursday’s draw in Monaco.
Writing by Brian Homewood in Berne, editing by Pritha Sarkar