Joel Matip‘s 89th minute header kickstarted Liverpool’s season as a 2-1 win over Ajax at Anfield put the Reds back in the running to reach the last 16 of the Champions League. Jurgen Klopp’s men had won just two of their opening seven games of the season, and suffered a 4-1 thrashing at the hands of Napoli on matchday one. Last season’s Champions League finalists were much more like their old selves but still needed a late winner from an unlikely source after Mohammed Kudus had cancelled out Mohamed Salah‘s opener.
Victory takes Liverpool level on three points with Ajax and Napoli, who travel to Rangers in the other game in Group A on Wednesday.
“If you put the two games next to each other, I don’t think you recognise the same squad,” Klopp said of his side’s improvement from six days ago in southern Italy.
The match was preceded with a minute’s silence to mark the death of Queen Elizabeth II.
Liverpool fans had booed the national anthem before winning both domestic cup finals last season, but any fears of a mass political protest were dispelled with only small band of individuals interrupting the moment of reflection.
On the field, Liverpool have had enough bad headlines to cope with so far this season.
Klopp described their demolition by Napoli last week as the worst performance of his nearly seven years in charge.
A record-equalling defeat in the Champions League for Liverpool compounded an already poor start to the Premier League season.
But with Matip, Thiago Alcantara and Diogo Jota restored to the starting line-up after injuries, Liverpool were a far closer reflection of the side that came to within two games of a historic quadruple last season.
“It’s the first step but nothing more,” added Klopp, whose side are not in action again for another two-and-a-half weeks with Sunday’s match against Chelsea postponed due to policing pressures around the Queen’s funeral.
Nunez fails to fire
Jota’s inclusion came at the expense of Darwin Nunez as Liverpool’s new 80 million euro ($81 million) signing had to settle for a place on the bench for the second consecutive game.
The Portuguese international more than justified his inclusion, though, as he latched onto Luis Diaz’s header and teed up Salah to score his first goal in four games.
But the defensive deficiencies that have dogged Klopp’s men in the early months of the season were exposed for Ajax’s equaliser.
Trent Alexander-Arnold was again guilty of not tracking a runner as Steven Berghuis broke down Ajax’s left and Kudus spun onto his cross before crashing in a shot off the underside of the bar.
Liverpool responded positively from that setback, but failed to make their dominance count for over an hour.
Remko Pasveer in the Ajax goal blocked efforts from Alexander-Arnold, Virgil van Dijk and Jota either side of half-time, but was not required to perform miracles.
Nunez was introduced along with Roberto Firmino for the final half hour as Klopp threw caution to the wind with a front four also featuring Salah and Diaz.
That decision nearly backfired as Ajax were inches away from picking off the hosts on the counter-attack when Daley Blind‘s header drifted just wide.
Nunez has endured a far from stellar start to his Liverpool career after being sent off on his home debut for a headbutt on Crystal Palace’s Joachim Andersen.
The Uruguayan blew his big chance to silence the critics when he skewed wide with just Pasveer to beat eight minutes from time.
Salah’s deflected shot then hit the woodwork, but just when it appeared Liverpool’s luck was out, they struck from the resulting corner.
Matip rose highest to meet Kostas Tsimikas’ corner and the ball had crossed the line before Dusan Tadic cleared.
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