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Liverpool 0, Ajax 6: Finishing Lessons

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sterling celebrate
Liverpool 0
Ajax 6 Fischer 7', 50, 68', de Sa 44, Klaassen 58', 65' (pen)

Kickoff from St. Helens' Langtree Park ended up delayed by thirty minutes, but with the crowd more than double the expected 4,000 it was worth the wait to see nearly 10,000 supporters come out for Liverpool's young reserves. And with Toni Silva out on loan at Northampton Town, when the match did get underway it was a chance for both Suso and Krisztian Adorjan to start when earlier games had all seen Suso play the first sixty-odd minutes before making way for the Hungarian playmaker

Following up on past strong performances from the bench, Adorjan settled between the lines quickly, providing encouragement for a Liverpool side that would need to finally solve their finishing issues to have a chance at victory. Unfortunately, despite a strong day for Adorjan personally, typically dangerous running by Raheem Sterling on the left, and Andre Wisdom at times looking like Daniel Agger when carrying the ball out of defence, in the end it was more of the same for the Reds.

As had been the case against Spurs and in the opening round against Sporting Lisbon, Liverpool controlled the game for long stretches and had more chances than their opponents. And as had been the case before, they lost to a side that managed to marry their solid, technical play with an ability to put away their chances, marking one more night of failings in front of goal in a season that has been full of them at every level for Liverpool.

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For Liverpool, along with their familiar problems, it was a largely familiar lineup to what had been seen in the group stages of the tournament and last month's quarter-final at White Hart Lane. Aside from the inclusion of Adorjan in the starting eleven forced by Silva's loan, the only major change from earlier sides was that Danny Ward started in place of Tyrell Belford in goal. Belford had previously started every game in the NextGen Series, but after arriving at the end of January from Wrexham, the Wales U19 keeper was instead given the nod.

It would be hard to fault him for giving up a goal on the first shot of the game, as Ajax standout Viktor Fischer passed it into the bottom corner just as the players began to settle down after a chippy opening, but it was certainly a bad sign for a Liverpool side that struggles to finish to see an opponent go up on their first chance. Those signs went from bad to worse later in the first half when Raheem Sterling burst into the box and tried to cut inside onto his stronger right foot. The well-prepared Ajax defender knew what he was trying to do and would only give him the outside, though, which after a moment's hesitation Sterling took, blowing past Ruben Ligeon and drawing a penalty when the right back made a stab for the ball.

Suddenly, Liverpool seemed set to draw level—something their play to that point certainly deserved. Any Liverpool fan, though, having spent a season growing to expect non-conversion of penalties with the senior side, will have been worried. And it turned out it's not just the senior side that struggle from the spot, as Suso pushed aside regular penalty taker and captain Conor Coady only to fire the ball straight at keeper van der Hart. The Ajax stopper then saved his follow-up effort, and a Liverpool side that should have had at least a goal based on their early play remained a goal behind against an academy that over the years has produced the likes of Cruyff, Bergkamp, and van der Vaart.

Liverpool's dominance would continue for much of the half, largely keeping Ajax away from goal by hardly giving them a touch of the ball. Towards the end of the first, though, Ajax's scoring leader Fischer seized on a bit of sloppy play by Liverpool centre back Stephan Sama. His effort was stopped, but Lesley de Sa put the rebound in off the post. As after Ajax's first goal, Liverpool responded quickly, but a second Sterling penalty shout right before the whistle blew only led to the young Red being carded when he protested his case too forcefully, and Liverpool went into the break down by two despite that they had had at least eight quality chances to the visitors' three.

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If the first was a story of wasted opportunities, the second quickly became one of collapse as Ajax continued to finish clinically and Liverpool's youngsters showed signs of losing hope. Five minutes after the restart, it all came apart for Liverpool when Fischer scored his second of the night. Ward had blocked the initial shot but parried it straight back towards the penalty spot instead of to the side, leaving an inviting ball for the alert Fischer to hammer home as he followed play into the box.

Suso almost managed an immediate reply, cracking a free kick off the crossbar and soon after trying to thread a ball through to a streaking Sterling only to see teammate Michael Ngoo stretch to get his foot on it and break up the play. But with Liverpool's earlier struggles in front of goal weighing heavily, the game had already begun to seem all but done. When Ajax's Davy Klaassen put away his first eight minutes later before stepping up to put home a rather soft penalty on 65 minutes to give Ajax their fourth and fifth of the night, it only confirmed what had become obvious shortly after the start of the second half.

Two minutes after Klaassen's second, Fischer would find his hat-trick against a Liverpool side that had lost their early drive as the match slipped farther and farther away despite that they had at least edged their opponents over the first fifty minutes. Given that experience is what matters, there's a silver lining to be found in Liverpool being set to now face the loser of the Inter Milan-Marseille semi-final—despite the loss, they still get the chance to face further continental opposition. Still, given how well they played in the first, and moreover how well they've played throughout the tournament, the method of tonight's defeat and the continuing struggles in front of goal are hard to take.

It's been a valuable experience, and a good run while it lasted. And some of Liverpool's kids certainly look to have bright futures—the obvious name being Raheem Sterling, of course, but also based on recent evidence the likes of Adorjan and right back Ryan McLaughlin. It can't be ignored, however, that in the second half tonight things got rather ugly. And it can't be ignored that that came as a direct result of a continuing inability to convert chances into goals, an ongoing failing that increasingly seems to exist at every level of Liverpool Football Club.