A wonderful occasion fell somewhat flat on Wednesday night, as Liverpool battled their way to a hard-earned three points at the Johan Cruijff ArenA, taking the spoils by way of a scrappy own goal from Nicolás Tagliafico. Below, we take a quick look at some of the winners and losers from the Reds’ opening fixture of their Champions League campaign.
Fábio Henrique Tavares: Much has — quite rightly — been made of the season-ending injury suffered by Virgil van Dijk as a result of Jordan Pickford’s assault in the Merseyside derby at the weekend and how the Reds will deal with the Dutchman’s absence for the remainder of the campaign. Joël Matip staying back in Liverpool while the squad travelled to Amsterdam didn’t reduce speculation the Reds would simply fall apart now that they would have to rely on their 3rd and 4th choice defenders — whoever they might be — for the rest of the year.
Like against Chelsea, however, Fabinho stepped up big. As they did at Stamford Bridge, Liverpool dropped off more than they typically have done when featuring van Dijk and Joe Gomez, ensuring the Brazilian wasn’t forced to chase back facing his own goal too often.
Ajax’s choice to largely leave four players up front for counters certainly meant that the visitors’ backline was kept plenty busy throughout, but the makeshift partnership held their opponents to two big chances — one of which would almost certainly have been called back for offside had Adrián not saved it — and when Dušan Tadić looked certain to have levelled the score right before half-time, Fabinho popped up with an acrobatic clearance off his line to secure the clean sheet.
They certainly won’t be as impenetrable at the back as they were during their 18-month run leading up to the Premier League title, but there is a chance the Liverpool defence won’t be completely inept either.
A Winning Start: One-goal wins were a major theme for the Reds last season, and while most of them looked more competent than tonight, they’re all worth the same amount of points, so getting three in the opening match and what is, on paper, arguably the toughest fixture in the group, is absolutely worth celebrating.
Liverpool’s midfield looked leggy and their frontline out of sync, fluffing a number of excellent transition opportunities, but these are hopefully just the early-season issues of a team that are still finding their fitness after an exceptionally weird pre-season and a ludicrously busy fixture list. Taking points in such period could prove crucial later on.
Atmosphere: While the game itself didn’t exactly live up to the billing as a clash between two phenomenal attacking sides, the disappointment that the first match between the two European giants in over 50 years had to be played in an empty stadium may be even grander.
The scenes of a rambunctious traveling Kop combining with 40-odd thousand Ajax fans for a belting rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone would have been — in the true sense of the word — epic, and probably would have inspired a more memorable performance. Hopefully it won’t be another 50 years until we get the chance again.
Credit to the Opposition
A few years ago, many teams attempted to run with Liverpool in the open field, inviting the heavy metal Reds to a transition contest. More often than not, they succeeded, breaching Jürgen Klopp’s defences for a score or two. That success usually came at the cost of shipping anywhere from three to five goals at the other end, though, so teams stopped doing that. In the past two seasons, then, Liverpool games have largely been contests of patience, with the Reds probing patiently at blocks of four and five, while the opposition looks for the opportunity to create a chance or two on the counter.
Despite the drab scoreline, tonight’s match was a bit of a throwback, with Erik ten Hag consistently pushing players high up the pitch in order to stress and harry his visitors into making mistakes, but exposing his side to swift transitions the other way. It nearly succeeded as well, and if not for a big save and a big clearance, Ajax could have easily scored a few.
Certainly, the Reds had opportunities as well, and the front three looked to have entirely forgotten how to do the things they were so successful at in the past but have largely been denied in recent seasons, but for a football purist like ten Hag, there will absolutely be positives to take from tonight’s game.
What Happens Next
It’s fixture congestion time, as the Reds play five games in 14 days, starting with a visit from Rhian Brewster and Sheffield United on Saturday, before they travel to Denmark to take on Midtjylland in the next round of the Champions League next Tuesday. Stay healthy, lads!