Ajax 0-1 Liverpool: Fabinho impresses at centre-back as Reds cope without injured Virgil van Dijk

With Virgil van Dijk and Joel Matip out injured, Fabinho played at centre-back for Liverpool in their 1-0 Champions League win over Ajax; Brazilian midfielder impressed in new role, making crucial clearance just before half-time; An own goal from Nicolas Tagliafico won it for Liverpool

Fabinho impressed at centre-back against Ajax in the Champions League
Image: Fabinho impressed at centre-back against Ajax in the Champions League

Virgil van Dijk's injury and the impact of his absence has dominated the discussion since he was clattered by Jordan Pickford in the Merseyside derby on Saturday. But Fabinho's performance against Ajax was a reminder Jurgen Klopp has an assured alternative to call upon.

A defensive midfielder by trade, Fabinho pulled off a fine impression of an experienced centre-back in difficult conditions in Amsterdam, as Liverpool held out for a 1-0 win to kick off their Champions League campaign.

With another centre-back, Joel Matip, missing due to a muscle strain, Fabinho slotted in alongside Joe Gomez on Wednesday night and, while there was some nervousness around him from his defensive partner and goalkeeper Adrian, the Brazilian delivered a display which suggested he can be trusted to step up to the challenge.

Joe Gomez and Fabinho of Liverpool warm up prior to the Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Burnley FC at Anfield on July 11, 2020 in Liverpool, England. Football Stadiums around Europe remain empty due to the Coronavirus Pandemic as Government social distancing laws prohibit fans inside venues resulting in all fixtures being played behind closed doors. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images) 0:54
Jurgen Klopp praises the performance of new centre-back pairing Joe Gomez and Fabinho against Ajax but insists the duo will need time to fully adapt to the demands as a partnership.

Within the first couple of minutes a mix-up between Gomez and Adrian saw the goalkeeper boot the ball out of play for a throw-in off his defender - a reminder that Liverpool are without their injured No1 shot-stopper Alisson, too.

Later in the half, Gomez pinged a Nicolas Tagliafico pass straight back to the Ajax man in the build-up to a chance for the hosts. Then came the wind and rain in the second half, swirling around the Amsterdam Arena.

Through it all, Fabinho maintained his composure and confidence.

Clean sheet for Liverpool

Liverpool kept just their second clean sheet in the Champions League since the start of last season, with the other coming in their last group stage game of 2019/20 at Red Bull Salzburg.

A double-tackle in Liverpool's box on 11 minutes denied Dusan Tadic and then David Neres before Fabinho stroked the ball out to his midfield, and then a firm but fair challenge on Daley Blind on the edge of the Reds' area ended another Ajax attack.

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There was a worrying moment just after the half-hour mark when Neres clipped a pass through for Quincy Promes, who had run off Fabinho, and forced a good save from Adrian from close range but it was a rare lapse and two minutes before half-time Fabinho provided a decisive moment.

Fabinho made a crucial goal-line clearance against Ajax
Image: Fabinho made a crucial goal-line clearance against Ajax

Running back towards his own goal as Tadic lifted a chip over Adrian, Fabinho read the action perfectly, darted into the six-yard box and acrobatically hooked the ball off the line.

Liverpool weren't at their best and perhaps they were fortunate Ajax were below their top level, too. Davy Klaassen smashed a post with a drive just after half-time but despite the hosts having possession and territory late on as they pushed for an equaliser, Liverpool's defence - with Fabinho at the heart of it - were able to stand firm without facing many dramas.

Fabinho relished the battle at centre-back for Liverpool against Ajax
Image: Fabinho relished the battle at centre-back for Liverpool against Ajax

At the final whistle, Fabinho ranked second for tackles, clearances and interceptions among his Liverpool team-mates and could add another sure-footed centre-back performance to his CV.

The last one came just a few weeks ago against Chelsea in the Premier League. But that time Fabinho was playing alongside the security of Van Dijk.

Liverpool are missing that commanding leadership in the backline now, but with Fabinho - and Gomez who performed well, too - Liverpool logged a confidence-boosting clean sheet in Holland and showed they can still shut out the opposition without their towering Dutchman.

There were still some nervy moments and, as Klopp said afterwards, room for improvement - but with consistency comes familiarity and better performances. Fabinho will only grow to be more comfortable in the role.

Van Dijk will still be missed by Liverpool but Fabinho's quality and adaptability has helped to ease the crisis.

Klopp's verdict: Good - but can get better!

Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp on Fabinho's performance:

"He was good, but even he can play better! This combination with Joe and Fabinho, I don't think they've played together before, maybe once. They need to get used to each other, to the verbal demands in that position, what you have to say to help the midfielders.

"So it was a good performance, but there's a lot to improve which is good. How high or low is the last line in each moment? Counter-pressing, how do we react there? And it was absolutely good for tonight.

Fabinho wins a header in Liverpool's Champions League victory over Ajax
Image: Fabinho wins a header in Liverpool's Champions League victory over Ajax

"We are not dumb enough to think we didn't need a little bit of luck tonight, we needed Fabinho to make a proper stretch to get the ball off the line, they also hit the post. The clean sheet was one thing, but we could have done better.

"Fabinho can play in the position, he likes playing it actually. If I'd have asked him to play right-back, I don't think he would have enjoyed it so much, but in our situation at the moment we have to keep these boys fit and they can help us a lot.

"I'm not surprised that he played well there or we would have thought about a different solution, even though that would have been very tricky. I'm really pleased tonight, pleased for him, it gave him confidence and helped us."

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