There was fog in Amsterdam the last time Liverpool visited Ajax in the European Cup in 1966. This time there were clouds hanging over Jürgen Klopp’s team and, while they cannot be lifted by one result, victory against the Dutch champions delivered a timely reminder of the strength that lies within the Liverpool collective.
Under normal circumstances the Liverpool manager would have embraced an away win at a difficult venue at the start of a Champions League campaign. To triumph following a hugely turbulent and damaging few days – and with the added bonuses of a clean sheet, a slice of good fortune plus a commanding defensive display from Fabinho – underlined the European pedigree and vast experience available to Klopp even without Virgil van Dijk to marshal his backline.
Luck played its part in Liverpool’s victory with the Ajax defender Nicolás Tagliafico settling the outcome with an outlandish own goal. Klopp will feel it overdue given the injuries that dominated the buildup and shaped his team selection. “The medical department made the lineup pretty much,” he said. But there was determination and resilience in the visitors’ performance, typified by Fabinho denying Dusan Tadic an equaliser with a spectacular overhead clearance on his goal-line.
The Brazilian was forced into central defensive duties once again with Joël Matip joining Van Dijk on the sidelines and, on this evidence, he is likely to remain there. Liverpool started nervously in defence, which was hardly a surprise given the recent disruption. But Fabinho brought composure and assurance from the start and produced a series of timely interceptions that thwarted promising Ajax moves. One led to Mohammed Kudus injuring his right knee in an awkward landing and the Ghanaian forward had to be replaced by Quincy Promes.
First post-Van Dijk impressions did not bode well for Liverpool. A lack of communication between Joe Gomez and the goalkeeper Adrian led to them colliding and gifting Ajax a throw-in after two minutes.
Liverpool also took the conservative option of passing back to their goalkeeper far too often. The hosts sensed opportunity, and Adrian was fortunate to escape when one delayed clearance struck the in-rushing Tadic but rebounded to safety. The Spanish goalkeeper produced the first save of the game when Tadic found Lisandro Martínez unmarked at the back post following a well-worked corner.
In the first half Erik ten Hag’s side met little resistance when passing their way through Liverpool’s midfield – also hit by injury to Thiago Alcântara and with Jordan Henderson not risked for a second start in five days as he recovers from long-term injury. Curtis Jones made his full Champions League debut for his boyhood club but was withdrawn at the interval as Klopp opted for greater experience.
Qunicy Promes should have opened the scoring after the former Everton midfielder Davy Klaassen and David Neres combined for a clear opening inside the area. The forward, unmarked and only 10 yards from goal, shot straight at Adrian. Liverpool capitalised on the let-off in fortuitous fashion.
For all the disruption in defence and midfield, Liverpool were still able to call on the formidable talents of their established front three. It required a superb challenge from Danny Blind to prevent Roberto Firmino latching on to Mohamed Salah’s back-heel into the penalty area. Sadio Mané was a constant threat from the left and engineered the breakthrough without knowing too much about it. The Senegal international spun away from Perr Schuurs expertly when receiving a throw-in from James Milner. He then completely scuffed his shot across goal only for the Ajax left-back, Tagliafico, to steer the ball into his own net under zero pressure.
Liverpool, as dangerous in attack as they were open defensively in the first half, almost doubled their lead when Andy Robertson slalomed through the Ajax half and found Salah in space inside the area. A vital block from Noussair Mazraoui prevented Salah’s shot from finding the far corner.
Tadic thought he had equalised when he latched on to a long ball behind the Liverpool defence and lobbed the advancing Adrian but Fabinho was there to rescue his team with an acrobatic clearance on the goal-line.
Liverpool immediately swept down the other end and Mané almost conjured a second own goal out of Ajax, only this time Schuurs’ desperate attempt to intercept the striker’s cross sailed inches wide of the near post.
Klaassen was unfortunate not to level matters early in the second half when his first-time shot from Tadic’s lay‑off struck the inside of a post. Klopp withdrew his entire forward line on the hour, claiming it was to capitalise on the counter-attack rather than rest players for Sheffield United on Saturday, as Diogo Jota, Xherdan Shaqiri and Takumi Minamino were tasked with carrying the threat to Ajax.
Georginio Wijnaldum, Jota and the incisive Robertson all went close to extending Liverpool’s advantage in a second half that brought a more compact and confident defensive display from Klopp’s side as the contest wore on. “This story won’t be on the front page of our history book,” the Liverpool manager said of the result and the performance. “But it is an important one.”