Thursday, May 23, 2024

Ajax 0-3 Liverpool: Talking points as Champions League campaign ends for Dutch giants

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Liverpool have done what they had to in order to secure qualification for the round of 16 in this season’s Champions League and more on Wednesday evening in Amsterdam. Needing only to avoid defeat to Ajax, they went all the way and taught the Dutch champions a lesson in endurance as Mohamed Salah, Darwin Nunez and Harvey Elliott all hit the target to make the final score line read 0-3.

Ajax gave it a go

Though Ajax have bowed out of the competition following this defeat, it certainly wasn’t for lack of trying. They really put in a strong effort from the first minute, and for the opening half an hour, they had last season’s runners-up on the ropes. Their best chance on the evening came early on, but following some excellent work from Dusan Tadic, Davy Klaassen, Daley Blind and Brian Brobbey, all Steven Berghuis could do, completely unobstructed at seven or eight yards, was to hit the post.

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There was plenty of luck on Liverpool’s side in that moment and the contest would arguably have looked different had the Ajax midfielder found the back of the net. He failed, but his team continued to dominate, with the visitors hardly managing to get across the halfway line at all. Liverpool did not take a single shot towards Remko Passveer’s goal for a third of the match.

The opening period was a true testament to how much better Ajax look when they attack, especially at the Johann Cruyff Arena where a passionate crowd always has their back. At the other end of the pitch, Calvin Bassey and Jurrien Timber dealt quite comfortably with anything Darwin Nunez or Mohamed Salah threw at them, protected by the ever vigilant Edson Alvarez.

But in the end, it wasn’t to bee for Schreuder and his team. Liverpool rode out the storm and eventually walked away with smiles on their faces.

Liverpool hit back

After those 30 minutes had gone, Liverpool started to move the line of the battle further from Alisson Becker and closer to Passveer. A blunder by Joe Gomez in the 36th minute gave hosts another chance, practically the last they had to take the lead, but Trent Alexander-Arnold put in a vital block to deny Tadic from close range.

Five minutes later, Liverpool broke down the left side and captain Jordan Henderson produced a fantastic pass with the outside of the boot to release Salah. Passveer came for it and lost the race to the Egyptian, who coolly slotted home past the Ajax goalkeeper. For all the hope Ajax had, enlarged by an excellent opening of the match, it was now 0-1 and from that point on, the tables had turned.

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The Merseysiders obviously needed that goal, perhaps not so much on the scoreboard, more as a confidence boost. They were suddenly on the front foot, with Ajax completely stunned by the change of pace. Just two minutes later, Robertson and Firmino played some beautiful football to set up Nunez, but like Berghuis for Ajax earlier, the Uruguayan striker only managed to hit the post when he really should have scored. A second goal would’ve probably ended the contest then and there, before the halftime whistle.

Nonetheless, it eventually happened for Nunez. Less than four minutes into the second half, as Andy Robertson swung in a corner from the left and most eyes were turned to Virgil van Dijk, the 24-year-old got the better of the combined effort of Alvarez and Timber and bounced a header into the net. It took just another three minutes to set the final scoreline, as Salah turned provider this time with a lovely pass to release Elliott through the gap between the centre-back and the left-back, and the 19-year-old produced a great finish with his weaker foot from a very tight angle. Game over.

From that point on, Ajax had completely lost their drive and Liverpool calmly steered the ship their way right down to the final whistle.

The Liverpool formation

Jurgen Klopp has been searching for the right formula for his team, severely hit by injuries and bouts of poor form from key players. His usual 4-3-3 didn’t work, so he occasionally went for a 4-2-3-1 and even 4-4-2 flat. For this match he chose a 4-4-2 diamond, with Fabinho at the base, Elliott on the right, Henderson on the left, and Firmino playing the ’10’ role behind Nunez and Salah, and it worked very well.

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Henderson particularly looked much better than in some of the previous matches, making his presence felt on the left flank and assisting Salah for the opening goal. Salah obviously poses more danger for opponents when he plays more centrally than out wide on the right, and Nunez, despite the inexplicable miss in the first half, is a fine choice in a striker partnership.

Liverpool welcome Leeds United to Anfield on Saturday evening, and it will be interesting to see if Klopp sticks with this new system. It would not come as a surprise, especially if Thiago Alcantara doesn’t recover from the ear infection which kept him out last weekend as well as forthis match, and with the fact in mind that Luis Diaz and Diogo Jota remain on the sidelines.

The aftermath

Liverpool face Napoli at Anfield in what will now be a direct clash to determine the winner of the group, and Klopp will surely motivate his men as much as possible to go for it with everything they’ve got. Still, Napoli with fancy their chances given the form they’re in, even in front of a bouncing Anfield, after thrashing Liverpool in Italy in the opening round.

It’s now up to the German tactician to figure out how to deal efficiently with the likes of Victor Osimhen and Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, not to mention Piotr Zielinski, Hirving Lozano and the other formidable names at Luciano Spalletti’s disposal.

As for Ajax, they are now odds-on to continue their adventure in the Europa League, and it might just prove to have been a blessing in disguise, looking at it from a certain angle. In the previous seasons, the Dutch giants usually got through the group stages but they never really had the quality to go toe-to-toe with some of Europe’s mightiest teams. The Europa League, on the other hand, might just be within their measure, and if they manage not to lose by more than four goals to Rangers in the final round (and they most likely will), they’ll surely be looking to win that trophy.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Veselin Trajkovic


Vesko is a football writer that likes to observe the game for what it is, focusing on teams, players and their roles, formations, tactics, rather than stats. He follows the English Premier League closely, Liverpool FC in particular. His articles have been published on seven different football blogs.

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