The scoreline does nothing to flatter what was a high-paced affair between two wonderfully positive teams that nonetheless couldn’t quite piece it together in the final third, but most importantly, Liverpool pulled out the result, and, courtesy of an Atalanta draw in Denmark, guaranteed themselves top spot in Group D.
Below, we take a look at some of the winners and losers on this chilly Anfield night.
Recuperation: After the debacle against Atalanta last week, the importance of getting this win and securing not only advancement to the next round, but top spot in the group a round early can hardly be overstated. With the obscene schedule the Reds are facing this winter, and the upsettingly considerable list of injured first team players, any game that can be written off and used to rest key starters could prove critical down the line.
Assuming the trip to Midtjylland next week is used as a pure exhibition match, Liverpool’s starters will only play a single game in the next 12 days, a wonderful luxury in a period where matches are typically coming every three days for a month and a half.
Allowing the likes of Alisson, Naby Keïta, Thiago and Trent Alexander-Arnold to work their way closer to full health while Georginio Wijnaldum, Jordan Henderson, Andrew Robertson, Fabinho and the front four can kick back with their feet up could hopefully provide just the vitamin injection the Reds need to avoid burning out completely in this unprecedentedly congested season.
The Children: Given the challenges he’s facing regarding the health of his squad, Jürgen Klopp will require significant contributions from fringe players if this season is to be a success, and with most of those fringe players also on the injury list, the yutes are going to have to step up.
And step up they did. Caoimhin Kelleher might have been the pick of the bunch on the night, with four saves in total, including an 87th-minute stop from a point-blank Huntelaar header to save the three points, but Curtis Jones and Neco Williams more than played their part. In fact, the two 19-year old academy graduates were behind the only goal of the game, as Williams’ floated cross to the back post found — albeit with a bit of help from a flapping Andre Onana — Jones who tapped home from three yards.
The goal wasn’t their only contribution, however, and while Williams looked far less overmatched than has occasionally been the case when called upon this season, Jones was a genuine force, getting on the ball more than any other Liverpool midfielder and doing a terrific job covering for his full-back when called upon.
The Front Four: Good heavens were the lads wasteful tonight. While the Reds did rack up a number of clear cut chances to pad their stats in the final 20 minutes as Ajax threw caution to the wind and left the impressive youngster Per Schuurs to fend for himself at the back, they should have done so much earlier.
Ajax’s six-plus-one press saw them defend an entire half of a football field with three men for large portions of the first half, and Liverpool had at least five massive counter attacking opportunities that went to waste, either through a bad touch, a bad pass, or, most egregiously, no pass at all, particularly to Mohamed Salah who was wide open in front of Onana on multiple occasions and neither Sadio Mané or Diogo Jota even attempted to find him.
These wasted opportunities won’t show up in the numbers, but they represent either an off night or a troubling trend where the Reds’ historically deadly attackers have failed to make the most out of the opportunities presented to them. It didn’t affect the final outcome this time, but it will at some other point if they can’t figure it out and get into the sort of rhythm that saw Klopp’s team Europe’s most feared transition attack.
Credit to the Opposition
Ajax did what Ajax do, came out to play. A high press, ambitious combination play from the back, and willingness to push number forward, particularly in the final quarter of the game, made this an exhilarating back and forth affair, one that, similarly to the reverse fixture in Amsterdam, bizarrely yielded only a single goal. The two teams are among Europe’s finest institutions and proponents of positive football, and hopefully it won’t be another five decades until they meet again.
What Happens Next
The Reds have five days off! Klopp’s men will host Wolverhampton on Sunday, before sending whatever under-19s they can gather up on a class trip to Denmark next Wednesday for a Champions League dead rubber.