Jürgen Klopp could not bear to look, clasping his hands as in prayer and turning towards the Main Stand as Liverpool awaited confirmation that Joël Matip’s 89th-minute header had crossed the Ajax goalline.
Then the referee, Artur Soares Dias, pointed to his watch, pointed to the centre circle and pointed Liverpool’s Champions League campaign in a completely different direction.
Another night of Champions League torment had beckoned for Liverpool until Matip connected with a Kostas Tsimikas corner and goalline technology rendered Dusan Tadic’s clearance redundant. Liverpool had answered Klopp’s call to react to last week’s abysmal defeat in Naples with a committed and cohesive performance; the returning Thiago Alcântara to the fore, Mohamed Salah rediscovering his goalscoring touch and Tsimikas embodying the tenacity that the occasion demanded.
A draw would have done little for morale, momentum or qualification prospects, however, hence the wild scenes led by the usually mild-mannered Matip in front of the Kop when his first Champions League goal since 2013 was confirmed.
It was late, scruffy and Liverpool have plenty of improvement left to make. They were wasteful in front of goal, careless with the final pass and easily undone for the Ajax equaliser brilliantly dispatched by Mohammed Kudus. But it was ultimately a precious victory for Klopp’s team, a deserved reward for their collective endeavour, and will transform the mood during the prolonged international break.
After several days of hammering his players with the “absolute truth”, Klopp made four changes to the team responsible for what he labelled the worst display of his Liverpool reign at Napoli. Diogo Jota was selected ahead of summer signing Darwin Núñez as Klopp looked for a more compact, counter-pressing unit to relaunch Liverpool’s European campaign. Trent Alexander-Arnold’s inclusion made him the youngest player in Liverpool’s history to hit the milestone of 50 European appearances for the club, at 23 years and 341 days.
There was no Champions League anthem before kick-off and the traditional sound of You’ll Never Walk Alone was abandoned after only a few notes as Uefa and Liverpool commemorated the recent death of Queen Elizabeth II. Anfield was asked to observe a period of silence for the late monarch and, in the main, it was respectfully observed.
One shout of “Liverpool” and a couple of boos were met with immediate instructions to shut up from others in the crowd while the majority paid their respects in silence.
Klopp’s call for Liverpool to “reinvent” themselves post-Napoli did not lead to a radically different approach, although an improvement was noticeable and instant. The recalled, fit again Thiago and Jota both had an early impact while Matip’s striding runs out of defence helped break the Ajax lines and put the Dutch champions under sustained early pressure. It paid off when the hosts claimed an early lead that should have eased some of the anxiety inside Anfield.
Luis Díaz, one of the few to escape criticism in Naples, won a towering header from an Alisson clearance and steered it into the path of Jota. Two Ajax defenders swarmed in on the Liverpool striker but Jota held them off before releasing Salah inside the area. After seven Champions League games without a goal, his longest drought in the competition, Salah could not have wished for a better opportunity to end the unwanted sequence and beat Remko Pasveer with a convincing finish.
Liverpool’s work rate off the ball was also improved and Klopp roared in approval when Tsimikas, Díaz and Thiago pressed Ajax so successfully they were forced to play the ball from Tadic in attack back to Pasveer in goal. But just as Liverpool were enjoying their most dominant spell, they were prised open by Ajax’s speed and intelligence in a rare foray
Trouble brewed from the moment the right-back, Devyne Rensch, beat the Liverpool press with a precise pass through Díaz and Tsimikas. Edson Álvarez found Daley Blind hugging the opposite flank and the former Manchester United defender sent Steven Berghuis sprinting into space vacated by Alexander-Arnold. Berghuis pulled a cross back between the legs of Matip towards Steven Bergwijn standing unmarked inside the Liverpool area. Kudus, also unmarked, got to the ball first, spun away from Van Dijk and drove an unstoppable left-foot shot in off the underside of Alisson’s crossbar. It was clear why Ajax refused to sell Kudus to Everton in the recent transfer window after losing Antony to United.
Liverpool continued to create good openings but, whether from set-pieces or open play, they struggled to find a clinical touch. Both Matip and Van Dijk sent inviting headers either over the bar or straight at Pasveer while Núñez pulled an excellent chance wide from Salah’s pass. Blind should have edged Ajax ahead but, with time and space to pick his spot, steered Tadic’s cross inches wide of the far post. Time was running out when Salah’s shot looped on to a post via Calvin Bassey. Tsimikas delivered another set piece on the money, and Matip redeemed Liverpool.