Jürgen Klopp’s men got their 2020/21 Champions League campaign off to a winning start at the Johan Cruijff Arena as Nicolás Tagliafico’s 35th minute own-goal saw them past Erik ten Hag’s men in the Group D opener.
It was a welcome boost after a testing few days, dominated by questions surrounding the anterior cruciate ligament injury that looks set to rule Virgil van Dijk out for much of the campaign.
This was the ideal answer, especially considering the general assurance displayed by Fabinho and Joe Gomez in the centre-back positions. The Reds made four changes from Saturday’s Merseyside Derby draw as Joël Matip, Virgil van Dijk, Jordan Henderson and Thiago Alcântara came out for Gomez, James Milner, Georginio Wijnaldum and — most notably — Curtis Jones. There were two for the hosts from their 5-1 Eredivisie win over Heerenveen on Sunday. That saw Lassina Traore replaced by Lisandro Martínez.
Ten Hag was required to make an in-game alteration within nine minutes as 20-year-old forward Mohammed Kudus looked to jar his knee in painfully familiar fashion and had to be replaced by Quincy Promes. The Dutch outfit created the first opening, nonetheless, as Martínez headed Dušan Tadić’s excellent 16th-minute far-post cross from the right into the gloves of Adrián following a short-corner.
Jones then saw a left-footed effort float somewhat unthreateningly into the gloves of André Onana four minutes later and Ryan Gravenberch drilled a low long-range effort of his own narrowly wide of the left-hand post at the other end moments later. Andy Robertson, whose influence on the game was steadily growing, saw a low cross from the left well-anticipated and gathered by Onana just before the half-hour mark.
Mohamed Salah very nearly put Roberto Firmino through with an ingenious backheel in the 31st minute but Daley Blind did superbly to intercept on the stretch. Then — as so often seems to be the case — Ajax should really have been ahead moments prior to going behind.
The 33rd minute saw a flowing move down the left make its way across the Liverpool box and to the feet of David Neres inside it. The Brazilian’s left-footed shot was deflected but straight into the path of Promes, whose point-blank right-footed attempt was superbly kept out by Adrián’s own feet. In truth, had the Ajax forward converted, he would probably have been ruled offside anyway. The Reds weren’t dwelling on it.
Sadio Mané spun cleverly away from a marker on the left side of the box following a throw-in and his scuffed right-footed shot was inadvertently sidefooted into his own net by Tagliafico’s normally trusty left-foot. Messy or otherwise, Liverpool had a valuable lead.
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Noussair Mazraoui did well to block a low Salah shot that could well have doubled it in the 40th minute and Fabinho produced an even more heroic piece of defending four later. Tadić was played in-behind by a lofted pass which he took down and coolly lobbed over the advancing Adrián but the Brazilian — within another assured display at centre-back — read it and raced back to hook the ball off the line on the volley.
That moment’s value simply grew as the game aged and the lead was maintained into half-time and beyond. Davy Klaassen was within inches of equalising a little over a minute into the second-half when his first-time right-footed drive from 20-yards thumped the inside of the right-hand post, but that was about as close as the home side were allowed to come.
Fabinho headed a 57th minute Robertson corner narrowly wide via Onana, while Promes did see a 20-yard right-footed volley palmed away well by Adrián after the hosts broke superbly from another of those set-pieces.
Firmino, Salah and Mané were replaced by Diogo Jota, Xherdan Shaqiri and Takumi Minamino respectively in the 60th minute as Klopp used his rotation options. Impressively, the seeing out process remained an assured one.
More of the openings were Liverpool ones. Minamino stung the palms of Onana with a powerful 25-yard drive in the 70th minute. The home ‘keeper also denied Wijnaldum and then the Japanese international again in quick succession in the 90th at the end of a rapid counter-attack.
The one close-shave for the visitors arrived in the fifth and final minute of stoppage-time when Adrián could only push a cross into the path of Jurgen Ekkelenkamp. Thankfully, though, the substitute volleyed over and Klopp’s side kept hold of the points and a positive start to their fourth successive Champions League campaign.