Liverpool bounce back to beat Ajax thanks to late Joel Matip winner

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Arguably Jurgen Klopp’s first great European night at Anfield culminated in late winner from a centre-back sent up for a set-piece. If Ajax in 2022 may not yet belong alongside Dortmund in 2016, Joel Matip’s decider here might rank alongside Dejan Lovren’s against Klopp’s old employers six years ago in terms of its importance.

After the worst display of his reign and the nightmare in Naples, Liverpool required a response and a win.

In their energy and their organisation, in the individuals and the collective, they had improvement. But as long as Ajax were on course to take a point, there was a case for arguing the result could be still more damaging than their statutory setback in Naples…until Matip met Kostas Tsimikas’ corner to plant a header beyond Remko Pasveer and frustration was replaced by celebration.

Matip’s Champions League campaign had begun with a damage-limitation exercise, sent on at 3-0 down in Naples to try and prevent a still more embarrassing scoreline. Now, and at the other end, he saved Liverpool from dropping two points.

Vindication for Klopp, perhaps. He had brought four players into the side. Each played his part. Matip scored, Tsimikas and Diogo Jota earned assists and Thiago Alcantara lent class in possession. Just as pertinently, each played well. So did Liverpool, albeit imperfectly. On a day when they had 23 shots, they eventually mustered a second goal to ensure shortcomings in either box did not cost them.

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Klopp could find no positives to derive from the show of incompetence in Naples. There were several here, including the sight of Mohamed Salah on the scoresheet. That used to be notable because of the quantity of his goals, but is now because of their rarity value.

But he almost had a second goal, seconds before Matip struck, with a shot deflected on to the bar by Calvin Bassey. He would have set up a goal but for a glaring miss by the substitute Darwin Nunez, steering a shot wide. The summer signing’s search for a redemptive moment after the red card against Crystal Palace goes on but, while Klopp put four forwards on the pitch for the closing stages, a defender delivered instead.

Until then, profligacy had been a problem for Liverpool, along with isolated difficulties against defence.

They were not as ragged or as shambolic as they had been in Naples but their only clean sheets this season remain against Bournemouth and Everton. Crucially, they conceded again.

The goal the excellent Mohammed Kudus scored stemmed partly from more problems on their right side and the unmarked Daley Blind could have secured Ajax’s first win against Liverpool since 1966.

For once, Liverpool had a start to savour. A team who have become accustomed to going 1-0 down instead took a lead after the first goal Ajax had conceded in 546 minutes.

Salah’s European drought had spanned seven games, dating back to February’s win over Inter Milan. It was also the Egyptian’s belated first goal at Anfield this season; even as they had scored nine against Bournemouth, he had not found the net. After his anonymous showing in Naples, Salah regained a prominence, shimmying past defenders, scoring in trademark fashion.

His strike came from a combination of a new-look front three. Klopp had preferred Jota to Nunez and Roberto Firmino. Vindication came quickly, with Jota marking a maiden start of the season with an assist. Luis Diaz was his provider, winning a header. Jota latched on to it, supplied Salah and he slid a shot past Remko Pasveer. So far, so good for Liverpool.

But they have had issues on the right side of their defence and dropping Joe Gomez did not resolve all.

Ajax’s equaliser was an explosive finish to a 26-pass move. Kudus accepted Steven Berghuis’ cutback, span and rifled in an unstoppable shot off the underside of the bar. Kudos to Kudus, who had scored in a fourth consecutive game, but for an instant, Liverpool could have been forgiven for wishing he had joined Everton in the summer.

Thereafter, the chances kept on coming. Pasveer reacted smartly to stop Van Dijk’s diving header, following a corner by Trent Alexander-Arnold. Jota and Diaz had fizzed shots into the advertising hoardings. Alexander-Arnold’s vicious volley just cleared the bar. He had twin shots parried. A Jota solo run was followed by a shot at the goalkeeper.

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Klopp sent for Firmino and Nunez, moving to 4-2-3-1 and gambling on attack and it threatened to backfire when Blind lumbered forward to head narrowly wide.

Instead, Matip was the match-winner. Liverpool’s previous European night at Anfield was a Champions League semi-final that felt a routine victory. Given the context and the timing, this was anything but.

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