Report as Sadio Mane's shot is turned into his own net by Nicolas Tagliafico while Fabinho shines in the absence of Virgil Van Dijk; Liverpool begin Champions League campaign with much-needed victory after failing to win any of previous three games
Thursday 22 October 2020 06:00, UK
Liverpool came through their first game without Virgil van Dijk unscathed as Nicolas Tagliafico's own goal gave them a 1-0 Champions League win at Ajax.
Tagliafico stumbled onto Sadio Mane's mis-hit shot to divert it beyond Andre Onana 10 minutes before half-time in what would prove the only goal of the game in an open match at the Johann Cruyff Arena.
Liverpool kept a welcome clean sheet despite the absence their talismanic defender, with stand-in centre back Fabinho proving a more than adequate replacement at the back, denying Dusan Tadic on the line with an acrobatic clearance before the break.
Ex-Everton midfielder Davy Klaassen nearly haunted his former rivals two minutes into the second period but was denied by the foot of the post with Adrian beaten, while the Liverpool goalkeeper also made important saves in either half from Quincy Promes.
But Liverpool defended their box stoutly for the most part on a night as they successfully came through their first test without the world's second-most expensive defender in their ranks.
Ajax: Onana (6), Mazraoui (7), Schuurs (7), Martinez (6), Tagliafico (6), Gravenberch (5), Klaassen (6), Blind (7), Neres (6), Kudus (n/a), Tadic (7).
Subs: Promes (6), Ekkelenkamp (5), Labyad (6), Huntelaar, Traore (n/a).
Liverpool: Adrian (6), Alexander-Arnold (7), Fabinho (8), Gomez (6), Robertson (8), Wijnaldum (7), Jones (6), Milner (7), Mane (7), Salah (7), Firmino (7).
Subs: Henderson (7), Minamino (7), Jota (7), Shaqiri (6), Rhys Williams (n/a).
Man of the match: Fabinho
How would Liverpool cope in Van Dijk's absence? After making a bright start in Amsterdam, things quickly became more difficult for Jurgen Klopp's makeshift backline.
Fabinho announced his arrival to the Liverpool defence with two excellent early tackles in quick succession to deny Tadic and David Neres in his own box, but could do little as Tagliafico was allowed to turn and feed Ryan Gravenberch, whose low effort from 20 yards whistled past the near post.
The hosts went closer on the half-hour when Klaassen was allowed space down the same flank to find Promes in the area who, after exchanging passes with David Neres, found himself one-on-one but was denied by a sharp reflex save from Adrian.
Moments later he was made to regret that miss as Liverpool went ahead with more than a touch of good fortune. Having turned Perr Schuurs from a throw-in, Mane's scuffed shot was heading well wide before deflecting off an off-balance Tagliafico and beyond Onana for a farcical own goal.
Ajax continued to push but were nearly caught on the break for a second when Andrew Robertson mounted a 50-yard run before finding Mohamed Salah, whose goalbound shot was blocked by Noussair Mazraoui with Onana likely beaten.
But the hosts were centimetres away from going into half-time level as Tadic lofted a ball over Adrian in the closing stages, only for Fabinho to race back and produce an acrobatic clearance on the line.
Two minutes after the break Ajax went close again when Klaassen rifled a first-time effort against the foot of the post from 20 yards with Adrian scrambling to reach it.
Liverpool's biggest threat for most of the second period came from set-pieces, with Fabinho close to crowning a fine personal performance when his header from Robertson's corner was deflected just past his own post by Onana's clumsy punch.
On the hour, Klopp opted to replace all three of Salah, Mane and Roberto Firmino for Xherdan Shaqiri, Takumi Minamino and Diogo Jota, with the latter soon turning Schuurs before the defender recovered to block his strike behind.
At the other end, a fast Ajax break called Adrian into a rare second-half save when Neres looked inside to Promes, who fired low at the near post with an effort the goalkeeper was more than equal to.
As the need to throw the kitchen sink at Liverpool became more desperate with time ebbing away, so too did the gaps in the home defence become more apparent.
The visitors had survived Ajax's increasing onslaught relatively well before coming close to doubling their advantage in the dying moments when Onana denied Wijnaldum on the break before Minamino's rebound effort was also cleared.
There was still time for Ajax to come close with the final chance of the game as Adrian's unconvincing punch from a Tagliafico cross was turned goalward by Jurgen Ekkelenkamp, but he could not keep his effort down and ensured Liverpool began their Champions League campaign with maximum points.
There's a long way to go to prove that Fabinho can prove an adequate stand-in for the colossal figure of Virgil van Dijk, but his performance in Amsterdam was at least a promising step in the right direction.
Of the five games the Brazilian has covered at centre-back, Liverpool have kept four clean sheets. Wednesday night's owed a lot to his performance at the heart of defence, too.
He showed good alertness to make two important tackles one after the other on David Neres and Quincy Promes before half-time, but his crowning moment came when clearing Dusan Tadic's effort off his own goal-line to keep their clean sheet intact.
Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp told BT Sport: "We were good enough to win the game. That's what you need. I think both teams can play better football, it was pretty wild at moments. I think the pitch was really tricky, deep, muddy a little bit, both teams looked really exhausted pretty early.
"Three days ago it looked completely different, yesterday in training too but it was the same for Ajax too. They are where we are, early in the season, that cannot be the reason really.
"It's a good example for how the boys played; it was not perfect but they fought like crazy, in that situation it helped massively, but apart from that, I really liked the fresh legs when we brought them on, the medical department told me Henderson could not play 90 minutes - okay, he played 45, and did really well."
Liverpool host winless Sheffield United on Saturday, live on Sky Sports Box Office; Kick-off at 8pm.
Ajax are also back in action on Saturday, and face a trip to mid-table VVV; Kick-off at 3.30pm.