Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Liverpool 2-1 Ajax: Talking points as Merseysiders return to winning ways

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Liverpool managed to get off the mark at the second time of asking in the Champions League this term, booking the first points in Group A by beating Ajax at Anfield on Tuesday. Mohamed Salah broke the deadlock in the 17th minute and Mohammed Kudus slammed a fantastic equalizer for the Dutch champions 10 minutes later. But just as the visitors started believing they would go back home with something in their bag, Joel Matip scored a rare Champions League goal with a minute left on the clock to keep all three in England.

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Back to basics for Liverpool

Speaking after the painful Napoli defeat last week, Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp said he and his team needed to “reinvent” themselves, which many took to mean to find a way to return to a previous point in time; one where they were good and were actually winning matches.

It’s safe to say that that’s exactly what Liverpool did, and it seems the postponement of their match against Wolverhampton Wanderers on Saturday helped. Klopp made three changes to the team that started in Naples, all injury related as Joel Matip returned to full fitness and got the nod ahead of Joe Gomez, as did Thiago Alcantara over James Milner, while a fresh injury picked up by Andy Robertson forced Kostas Tsimikas to come in on the left defensive flank.

But the Reds were a completely different team. Every player, except, maybe, young Harvey Elliott who didn’t have the best of evenings after a number of fine performances, played better than at the Diego Armando Maradona in the opening round. The result was astounding, if not altogether unexpected. A team that was overrun and utterly outplayed now kept the contest under control and dominated all its aspects, forcing a good opponent to play differently than they’d have liked.

Holes plugged at the back, pressing, counter-pressing, admirable work rate, intricate and accurate passing – it was all there. Though the Merseysiders needed a late winner to nail the victory, it would’ve been thoroughly unfair had they not done so with 57% possession and a total of 24 shots, 10 on target. Ajax had three, just the one which went in being on target. The biggest influence in everything done rightly was arguably Thiago, who pulled the strings from the middle of the park throughout the game.

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The point is, this was Liverpool as we’ve been used to seeing them in the last couple of seasons, seasons which have yielded practically every trophy on offer in their favour. Nothing spectacular for the quality they possess, but too much for most opponents to handle.

Different opposition, different proposition for Ajax

Ajax were simply brilliant as they cruised to a 4-0 win over Rangers in Amsterdam in the opening round, and maybe they believed that a shaken Liverpool would be significantly lesser hurdle than they usually are when they entered this contest. If so, they were sorely mistaken.

Ajax were never a team to sit deep and defend. They always seek to come out and play football, and direct games to their liking. They weren’t allowed to do that at Anfield, but they won’t be too unhappy with the way they adjusted to the new situation. They defended responsibly, always in numbers, every player committed 100% to the task at hand. That was the only way Daley Blind and Calvin Bassey could hope to stop Salah and they did for most of the game, apart from that 17th minute, obviously, when a quick move by Liverpool and the brilliance of Diogo Jota took them out.

Liverpool were better and deserved their win, but it should be said that things could’ve gone the other way as well. The goal they scored was as fine as they come as Blind whipped a fabulous pass down the left flank which took out Trent Alexander-Arnold and found Steven Berghuis, who beat Joel Matip and whipped a low cross. Steven Bergwijn and Kudus showed great understanding at that moment and it resulted in Kudus smacking home from around 10 yards, straight into the top corner, off the crossbar. Alisson Becker in the Liverpool goal could do absolutely nothing about it.

Blind had a great chance to put his side ahead in the second half as captain Dusan Tadic found his forehead at the far post with a pinpoint cross from the right, but the experienced defender put his header just wide of the target as Alisson watched on again.

But the defeat could’ve also easily been more convincing, with a series of last-gasp defending actions preventing Liverpool from adding to their tally, not to mention a total of eight saves by 38-year-old goalkeeper Remko Pasveer.

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An important angle for a bit more perspective here is that this was another summer of big changes for the Dutch giants, starting with the head coach as Alfred Schreuder replaced Manchester United-bound Erik ten Hag. Defender Lisandro Martinez and winger Antony followed Ten Hag to Old Trafford, right-back Noussair Mazraoui made his way to Bayern Munich as a free agent, and striker Sebastien Haller went to Borussia Dortmund. And despite all that, Ajax are still an excellent team.

Looking ahead

With all due respect to Rangers, the good news for Liverpool, apart from the three points from this game, is that they now play the Scottish side twice. Given what we’ve seen so far, Rangers are the weakest team in the group, and after the defeat to Napoli, adding another six points to these three would be most handy for Klopp and his men as they strive to book a place in the knockout stages. Ajax have a much tougher task, with Napoli coming to Amsterdam before Schreuder takes his team to Naples.

But even so, it’s likely that nothing will be decided after the next two rounds, and that Liverpool will have to do well against Ajax and get their revenge on Napoli to go through.

As for Napoli and Rangers, they play each other in Glasgow on Wednesday, and if Rangers fail to win, it’ll be hard to imagine them staying in the competition past the group stage.

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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