No Van Dijk, no problem as Liverpool overcome Ajax

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A Tagliafico own goal ensured a victory for The Reds

Liverpool kicked off their Champions League campaign tonight with a win against Ajax in the Amsterdam ArenA. It was the first meeting between the two sides since 1966, surprising given the amount of success both sides have had in European competition. Last time around Ajax dispatched comfortably of Liverpool with a scoreline of 5-1. That was not the case tonight as Liverpool came away with a much-needed victory.

The absence of Virgil Van Dijk was a much-discussed topic pre match. The Dutch centre back tore his ACL at the weekend after a poor challenge from Jordan Pickford. A timeframe has not been revealed yet as to how long he’ll be out of action, but early signs suggest it could be at least 9 months. Add this to goalkeeper Alisson’s injury and Liverpool’s backline has considerably depleted.

As expected, Fabinho and Joe Gomez started in a back two tonight in his absence. Joël Matip would probably have started with Joe Gomez in other circumstances, but a minor injury prevented him from doing so. Other than those three, however, Liverpool do not have an abundance of quality cover in that position. Reports suggest that Klopp may put his trust in youth in the coming months. This would be a great opportunity for some young players to gain some senior experience at the highest level, but how would it impact on Liverpool’s title chances? Throwing youngsters into the deep end amid intense pressure could spell disaster. Conversely, it could be the beginning of something special. Either way, it’ll be interesting to see how the season plays out in the absence of their talisman.

Liverpool have struggled so far this season by their standards. A humiliating 7-2 loss to Aston Villa and a 2-2 draw against Everton at the weekend mean they currently sit in 3rd. Ajax, on the other hand, sit 2nd in the Eredivisie after four wins from five games.

Nevertheless, the tie promised to be an exciting affair with both teams playing a progressive brand of football and it certainly lived up to expectations.

It wasn’t long into the game before Ajax were forced to make their first change. Promising youngster Mohammed Kudus went down injured with 9 minutes played and was replaced by Quincy Promes. This was a disappointing change for the neutral as Kudus is an exciting young talent as he’s shown so far this season. Netherlands international Quincy Promes isn’t a bad option to bring off the bench, however.

Not long after, Liverpool had their first opportunity of the game after a lightning counterattack. Sadio Mane found himself on the edge of the box and managed to cut inside to get a shot off, but unfortunately for him his shot was blocked by the Ajax defender. The opportunity came as a result of good defensive work from stand in centre back, Fabinho. He robbed Quincy Promes of the ball in his own before setting up the counter. This was the first sign of the high tempo football both teams normally play, as it was a pragmatic start to the match by both sides.

With 15 minutes played Ajax struck back with an opportunity of their own. Tadic produced a brilliant cross from the right which met the head of Fernandez, but it was straight into the arms of Adrian. The save would have been a good boost to Adrian’s confidence as he had some shaky moments due to miscommunication previous to the opportunity.

20 minutes into the match and Ajax had another opportunity. This time Ryan Gravenberch got a shot off from outside the box after good build up play by Ajax. Adrian was relieved as the shot just whistled by the post. Gravenberch is another exciting product of the Ajax academy and will likely have his breakthrough season this year at the age of eighteen. He looked solid in the first half before fading out of the game a bit in the second.

Adrian was called into action again in the 32nd minute. Some brilliant build up yet again by Ajax afforded Quincy Promes a great opportunity within the six-yard box but it was straight into Adrian who positioned himself well. A let off for Liverpool.

Promes’ miss would come back to haunt him just moments after. Liverpool scored after a frantic few minutes of football in what was unfortunate circumstances for Ajax. Nicolas Tagliafico won’t want to watch the goal back as it was his mistake that led to the goal. Sadio Mane let off a hopeful shot and – although going wide – Tagliafico reacted by throwing his foot at the shot which trickled into his own net.

Liverpool had another fantastic opportunity in the 39th minute after Salah was played through and left in space in the box. Normally so capable from that range, Salah delayed his shot enough for Noussair Mazraoui to get into position to block the shot in what would have been a certain goal, otherwise.

43 minutes in and it should have been 1-1 only for outstanding defending from Fabinho. A brilliant lobbed through ball in behind the Liverpool defensive line put Dusan Tadic through and his chipped attempt over Adrian was heading into the net before Fabinho acrobatically cleared over the line.

Moments afterwards and Fabinho was attacking the other end of the pitch. He met a Liverpool corner with his head, but the ball landed comfortably into Andre Onana’s arms. What a story it would have been if he scored after preventing an Ajax goal.

The first half ended 1-0 to Liverpool. Fabinho was arguably the best performer of the first half as he filled in for Virgil Van Dijk at centre half. His positional play was phenomenal at times given he’s not a natural centre back.

Henderson came on at half time for Curtis Jones. Otherwise, there was no other half time changes.

The first half started as the second ended. Davy Klassen struck beautifully from outside the box just moments after the whistle sounded, but his shot smashed against the far post. The former Everton man would have relished scoring against Liverpool, but it wasn’t to be.

Quincy Promes had yet another chance with 57 minutes gone. After a succession of half chances from Liverpool corners, Ajax launched a precise counterattack which led to the Promes chance from the edge of the box. His shot was tame and was tipped behind rather uncomfortably by Adrian. Nothing came of the resulting corner.

Liverpool made three changes directly after the chance for Ajax. Perhaps this was a sign as to how things were going as Ajax consistently created chances while Liverpool’s frontline failed to get going, despite the scoreline. Salah, Firmino and Mane were taken off and replaced by Shaqiri, Minamino and Jota. Mane was taken off as an injury precaution but the same cannot be said for Firmino and Salah, as they failed to impact the game like we have come to expect.

Liverpool had a slight scare in the 67th minute as a VAR check was done for a possible penalty for an Alexander-Arnold handball, but luckily for them nothing came of it.

Minamino had his first real involvement in the game after 69 minutes but his strike from outside the box was saved tipped behind comfortably by Andre Onana. Minamino has struggled for regular game time since his transfer to Liverpool so for him to score in European competition would have done wonders for him.

Wijnaldum went very near to making it 2-0 in the 73rd minute after he hit the wrong side of the net from a Liverpool corner. The corner came as a result of good work from Jota on the left-hand side as he cut inside and had his shot deflected out for the corner.

Minamino got involved again in the 77th minute. He showed some quick feet to get past the Ajax backline before he attempted a low cross which just evaded the onrushing Andy Robertson. It would have been a tap in if Robertson had connected.

Ajax went all out attack in the 83rd minute as they substituted Blind and Schuurs for Huntelaar and Traore, two more offensive minded players. It nearly cost them moments after as Jota caused problems before getting a shot off, but his shot was blocked to avert the danger.

Wijnaldum had another good opportunity in the dying embers of the game but Onana produced a good save to keep him out. The ball was kept in play and Liverpool fashioned another chance, but again Onana was there to stop them.

Liverpool made their final change in the 91st minute as Rhys Williams replaced James Milner. Although he only got on for a couple of minutes, the night will live long in the memory of the nineteen-year-old as he made his Champions League debut.

Ajax had another chance in the 94th minute as an Adrian mistake led to a Ekkelenkamp chance on the half volley. Unfortunately for him, he shot over in what was the story of the night for Ajax. This would be the last chance of the game for both sides.

The match finished 1-0 to Liverpool after an exciting end to end game. Liverpool have unquestionably produced better performances than tonight, but Klopp will be satisfied that his team managed to hang on until the end to secure the result.

The win moves Liverpool up to 2nd place in Group D under Atalanta who go ahead on goal difference after beating Midtjylland 4-0. Liverpool’s next outing in the Champions League comes against Midtjylland on Tuesday 27th of October. Joël Matip should be back in full fitness for the fixture but Klopp will have decisions to make after a solid Fabinho display in the same position tonight.

Liverpool line-up: Alisson; Alexander-Arnold, Gomez, Fabinho, Robertson; Milner (Williams 91’), Wijnaldum, Jones (Henderson 45’); Salah (Jota 58’), Mane (Shaqiri 58’), Firmino (Minamino 58’).

Ajax line-up: Onana; Mazraoui, Schuurs (Traore 83’), Martinez, Tagliafico; Gravenberch, Kudus (Promes 9’), Klassen (Ekkelenkamp 73’), Blind (Huntelaar 83’); Neres (Labyad 73’), Tadic.

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