The Champions League brought familiar comfort into a season of infuriating inconsistency for Jürgen Klopp. Liverpool secured their place in the knockout stage with one game to spare, their troubled away form and injury troubles forgotten as Ajax were finally ruled out in Amsterdam.
Mohamed Salah opened the scoring shortly before the break to move closer to becoming Liverpool’s all-time top scorer in European football. liverpool had been the second best so far, but with one delicate stroke, Salah changed the complexion of the whole night. Ajax, after a determined start which should have delivered a two-goal lead, gave way on the spot. Two back-to-back second-half goals from Darwin Núñez – his fourth in his last four starts – and Harvey Elliott cemented second place in Group A behind creeping leaders Napoli.
The roles will be reversed should Liverpool beat the Italian club by a four-goal margin at Anfield next week. The opportunity may seem like a luxury for Klopp after opening this Champions League campaign in Napoli. The answer to this loss 4-1 was an emphatic display of Liverpool’s European experience and pedigree.
There were shades of Napoli at Liverpool’s start in a noisy Johan Cruyff Arena where their defense was set apart and their woodwork battered from Ajax’s first attack. In Naples, Victor Osimhen hit the base of a Liverpool post after 42 seconds. This time it was Steven Berghuis who hit the target with just 128 seconds left to intensify an impressive atmosphere. He should have accomplished a lot more.
Davy Klaassen and Daley Blind combined near the corner flag with the former Manchester United defender’s pass deflected to Brian Brobbey in the Liverpool area. The Ajax centre-forward held off Virgil van Dijk and fired the ball to Berghuis, who rounded Andy Robertson in his 50th Champions League appearance for Klopp’s side. The goal was at the mercy of midfield but, with Alisson to beat from close range, his low shot blasted past a post safely.
Unlike Napoli, Liverpool learned from the reprieve, even if it took time. Alisson made his 200th appearance for the club and overcame sustained early pressure to keep a 90th clean sheet in the Liverpool goal. The Brazil international stepped in to prevent Jorge Sánchez’s cross from reaching the unmarked Dusan Tadic at the far post.
Berghuis cowered just wide after Trent Alexander-Arnold gave the ball away on the cheap, Sánchez fired a straight shot at Alisson from 25 yards out and Tadic had a glorious chance when Brobbey broke the right and crossed for his captain who stood unmarked inside the box. Alexander-Arnold recovered just in time to block Tadic’s powerful drive.
“I should have scored,” said the winger. “If I had scored or if Steven had scored, it would have been a different game. They scored from their first situation. The best teams always punish you if you don’t score.
Liverpool posed little threat at the start. Salah’s blocked volley on Robertson’s 29th-minute delivery was the visitors’ first real chance. Klopp deployed Núñez and Salah atop a diamond 4-4-2 with Roberto Firmino falling deep to orchestrate attacks, but it wasn’t until the dying moments of the first half that the plan came together. in place. The Uruguayan international, missed Saturday defeat at Nottingham Forest with a slight hamstring issue, returned to theatrics by going to the floor holding his face after non-existent contact from Calvin Bassey.
The moment seemed to sum up Liverpool’s frustration in the final third. But then, 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 pass from Firmino on the left, the Liverpool captain took on a challenge from Ajax right-back Sánchez and launched a fine instant pass with the outside of his right foot into Salah’s searing run through the middle of home defence. Remko Pasveer came off his line and only managed to invite the Egyptian international past him for the first time and with a gaping goal. It was Salah’s 40th European goal for Liverpool, bringing him within one club record set by Steven Gerrard.
Ajax, players and fans, immediately lost confidence. Liverpool should have doubled their lead before half-time when Robertson took Joe Gomez’s pass in stride, swung past Steven Bergwijn and broke through the Ajax defense with a pinpoint pass into Firmino. The Brazilian opted against shooting and picked out Núñez completely unmarked at the far post but, with an open goal to aim for, the striker’s effort hit the post.
Repairs were made quickly in the second half when Núñez headed Liverpool into a two-goal lead from a Robertson corner. As Fabinho dealt with Jurriën Timber around a crowded penalty spot, the centre-forward swung away from Sánchez to send a bent header past Pasveer and into the far corner.
It was only three minutes later that Elliott completed a smooth move with a fine finish into the roof of the Ajax keeper’s net. Salah became an exquisite provider this time around, receiving the pass from Alexander-Arnold in central position and clearing the young midfielder with a superb ball behind the Ajax defence. Elliott applied the finishing touch the pass deserved to beat Pasveer from a tight angle.
Ajax coach Alfred Schreuder heard his rowdy substitutions and mockery accompany a home performance that quickly soured after Salah’s opener. Getting into the Europa League invites the Dutch champions in the spring.
For Liverpool, it is the familiar ground of the knockout phase of the Champions League which awaits them for a sixth consecutive season.
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