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The Champions League has brought familiar comfort in a season of maddening inconsistency for Jürgen Klopp. Liverpool secured their place in the knockout stage with a game to spare, their troubled away form and injury problems forgotten as Ajax were ultimately eased aside in Amsterdam.

Mohamed Salah opened the scoring shortly before the interval to move a step closer to becoming Liverpool’s all-time leading goalscorer in European football. Liverpool had been second best until that point but with one delicate flick Salah changed the complexion of the entire night. Ajax, after a determined start that should have delivered a two-goal lead, wilted on the spot. Two second‑half goals in quick succession from Darwin Núñez – his fourth in his past four starts – and Harvey Elliott consolidated second place in Group A behind the rampant leaders Napoli.

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The roles will be reversed should Liverpool beat the Italian club by a four‑goal margin at Anfield next week. The opportunity may feel like a luxury to Klopp after the way this Champions League campaign opened in Naples. The response to that 4-1 reverse has been an emphatic demonstration of Liverpool’s European experience and pedigree.

There were shades of Napoli to Liverpool’s start at a raucous Johan Cruyff Arena where their defense was prized apart and their woodwork was struck from Ajax’s first attack. In Naples Victor Osimhen had struck the base of a Liverpool post after 42 seconds. This time it was Steven Berghuis who hit the frame of the goal with only 128 seconds gone to intensify an impressive atmosphere. He should have accomplished far more.

Davy Klaassen and Daley Blind combined near the corner flag with the former Manchester United defender’s pass deflecting to Brian Brobbey inside the Liverpool area. The Ajax centre-forward held off Virgil van Dijk and laid the ball off to Berghuis, who stepped around Andy Robertson on his 50th Champions League appearance for Klopp’s team. The goal was at the mercy of the midfielder but, with Alisson to beat from close range, his low shot cannoned off a post to safety.

Mohamed Salah lifts the ball over Ajax goalkeeper Remko Pasveer to give Liverpool the lead
Mohamed Salah lifts the ball over Ajax goalkeeper Remko Pasveer to give Liverpool the lead. Photograph: Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC/Getty Images

Unlike in Naples, Liverpool learned from the reprieve, although it took a while. Alisson made his 200th appearance for the club and overcame sustained early pressure to preserve a 90th clean sheet in the Liverpool goal. The Brazil international intervened to prevent Jorge Sánchez’s cross reaching the unmarked Dusan Tadic at the back post.

Berghuis curled just wide after Trent Alexander-Arnold had given the ball away cheaply, Sánchez shot straight at Alisson from 25 yards and Tadic had a glorious chance when Brobbey broke down the right and centered for his captain standing unmarked inside the area. Alexander-Arnold recovered just in time to block Tadic’s powerful drive.

“I should have scored,” the winger said. “If I had scored or Steven had scored it would have been a different game. They scored from their first situation. Top teams always punish you if you don’t score.”

Liverpool threatened little initially. Salah’s blocked volley from Robertson’s delivery in the 29th minute was the visitors’ first genuine chance of note. Klopp deployed Núñez and Salah at the top of a 4-4-2 diamond with Roberto Firmino dropping deep to orchestrate attacks, but it was not until the closing moments of the first half that the plan clicked into place. The Uruguay international, who missed Saturday’s defeat at Nottingham Forest with a slight hamstring problem, reverted to theatrics when going to ground holding his face after non-existent contact from Calvin Bassey.

The moment appeared to sum up Liverpool’s frustration in the final third. But then, from almost out of nowhere, they claimed an invaluable lead. It was a goal created superbly by Jordan Henderson and executed brilliantly by Salah. Receiving a Firmino pass out on the left, the Liverpool captain rode a challenge from the Ajax right-back Sánchez and flicked a beautiful, instant pass with the outside of his right foot into Salah’s darting run through the middle of the home defence. Remko Pasveer came racing off his line and succeeded only in inviting the Egypt international to clip a first-time finish over him and into a gaping goal. It was Salah’s 40th European goal for Liverpool, taking him to within one of the club record established by Steven Gerrard.

Darwin Núñez celebrates scoring Liverpool's second goal of the game.
Darwin Núñez celebrates after doubling Liverpool’s lead against Ajax. Photograph: Zac Goodwin/PA

Belief immediately drained from Ajax, players and supporters alike. Liverpool should have doubled their lead before half-time when Robertson took Joe Gomez’s pass in his stride, darted away from Steven Bergwijn, and pierced the Ajax defense with a precise pass into Firmino. The Brazilian opted not to shoot and picked out Núñez completely unmarked at the back post instead but, with an open goal to aim for, the striker’s effort struck the post.

Amends were made quickly in the second half when Núñez headed Liverpool into a two-goal lead from a Robertson corner. With Fabinho taking care of Jurriën Timber around a crowded penalty spot, the centre‑forward spun away from Sánchez to send a stooping header beyond Pasveer and into the far corner.

It was only three minutes later Elliott rounded off a flowing move with a fine finish into the roof of the Ajax keeper’s net. Salah turned exquisite provider this time, receiving Alexander-Arnold’s pass in a central position and releasing the young midfielder with a superb ball behind the Ajax defence. Elliott applied the final touch that the pass deserved to beat Pasveer from a tight angle.

The Ajax coach, Alfred Schreuder, heard his substitutions heckled and jeers accompany a home performance that went rapidly downhill following Salah’s opener. Dropping down into the Europa League beckons for the Dutch champions in the spring.

For Liverpool, it is the familiar ground of the Champions League knockout phase that awaits for a sixth successive season.

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