Liverpool 3 Salah 49’, Can 64’, Sturridge 90’
NK Maribor 0
It wasn’t another record-setting thumping, but a solid 3-0 win against overmatched opponents was exactly what Liverpool needed to take the wheel in Group E.
Expectations were high among the home crowd as Liverpool hosted NK Maribor on Wednesday, as many hoped to see another high-scoring affair following the last outing between the two teams. It was always unlikely, however, and the Slovenians predictably rolled out a far more conservative and responsible game plan than in their home fixture.
Jürgen Klopp made four changes to the side that overcame Huddersfield on Saturday, with Loris Karius returning in goal, Trent Alexander-Arnold replacing Joe Gomez at right-back, Emre Can stepping in for Jordan Henderson, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain nudging Daniel Sturridge to the bench. The first half was a tight and tepid affair, with Maribor surrendering the ball completely while refusing to give up space, and the hosts unable to break through and create much of note.
Henderson’s rest was cut short only fifteen minutes in as Georginio Wijnaldum was forced off with an ankle problem, and a few minutes later, the Reds had their first proper chance on goal, as Roberto Firmino won the ball high up the pitch and slid a low cross into the box for Oxlade-Chamberlain, but the England winger’s effort was blocked for a corner.
Halfway through the frame, Alexander-Arnold put his right leg on display with a gorgeous cross for Mohamed Salah, but the Egyptian was unable to take advantage, and at the half hour mark, the hosts went close. A deep, hard cross from Oxlade-Chamberlain was touched on by Firmino before deflecting off Jean-Claude Billong, sending the ball into a looping trajectory for the top corner. Moving his feet quickly, Jasmin Handanović was able to touch the ball onto the crossbar, however, and no Red was on hand to bury the rebound.
That was the last time the Reds looked close to scoring in the opening forty-five, as Emre Can and Salah put their efforts miles over the bar when presented with opportunities.
As against Huddersfield, Liverpool looked sharper as the second half began, and were rewarded almost instantly. Continuing to put dangerous balls into the box, Alexander-Arnold found the diagonal run of Salah at the near post, and with an improvised finish off his shin, the Egyptian got the Reds off the mark.
Two minutes later, Firmino embarrassed his marker in the box with a NSFW piece of backheel skill and was brought down. James Milner stepped up to take the penalty, but made it three misses in three attempts for three different Reds, and the second in consecutive matches.
The hosts weren’t looking to coast on a one-goal lead, however, and kept up the pressure. Firmino picked up a loose ball in the box following a corner, but his low shot was deflected for a corner by Handanovic, before a delight of an Alberto Moreno cross was impressively headed over from six yards by Salah a minute later. Maribor were forced to come out of their shell, and space began to open up for Liverpool’s attackers.
On sixty-four minutes, Emre Can doubled their lead. A slick one-two with Milner drew Marko Suler out of position, and the German contract rebel buried the ball in the bottom corner with aplomb from 20 yards.
It wouldn’t be a Liverpool game without some defensive shenanigans, of course, and the Slovenian visitors went close twice with twenty minutes to go, first forcing Karius to come for and drop a cross at the feet of Mešanović, whose shot was blocked for a corner, before hammering a long range effort on target on the subsequent clearance.
That was a close as the Vijoličasti would get, as Klopp’s men locked the game down for the remaining twenty minutes, limiting both sides to a combined total of one shot until injury time. Daniel Sturridge was brought on to replace Mohamed Salah and Marko Grujić took to the field for Firmino, and as regulation time ran out, the former made it two in two, as he found himself in space at the back post when the visitors failed to deal with a corner, and calmly tucked the ball away.
As in the Huddersfield match on Saturday, the Reds were unimpressive in the opening forty-five, but as soon as they got their goal, they looked utterly comfortable. Mohamed Salah keeps missing sitters, and yet has scored 10 goals in all competitions, on pace for 35 or so by June. The Morennaisance continues to looks like it might be a real thing, and for the first time in a while, the gegenpress seemed to fulfill its purpose without laying the defense completely bare.
Sevilla beat Spartak Moscow at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán, which means that Liverpool can clinch qualification for the knockout rounds with a win in Spain on November 21st. Before that, however, there is the matter of besting Slaven Bilić’s West Ham on Saturday, and surviving the third international break of the season without sustaining further injuries to the squad. Cross your appendages, people!