Liverpool secured their passage to the Champions League knockout stage courtesy of academy graduates Neco Williams and Curtis Jones, who combined for the decisive goal against Ajax, while debutant Caoimhin Kelleher impressed between the sticks to negate the absence of first-choice Alisson.
The build-up to Tuesday night’s fixture at Anfield began with the rumours being partially correct: home goalkeeper Alisson was unavailable for selection, but not for the reasons doing the rounds.
Jurgen Klopp cleared up that it wasn’t Covid-related per the noise, but due to a tight hamstring, which is likely to see the Brazilian international sit out Sunday’s test against Wolves.
Liverpool’s injury list at kick off was just two forwards short of an XI that could pose a formidable challenge in the top flight and in Europe: Alisson, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Joe Gomez, Virgil van Dijk, James Milner, Naby Keita, Thiago, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Xherdan Shaqiri.
But their young guns fired them into the next round.
Kelleher, 22, was selected in goal ahead of Adrian for his Champions League bow. “A football-playing goalie, a good shot-stopper,” is how Klopp described him and the manager applauded his contributions throughout the encounter.
Bar the big, decisive saves, Kelleher’s composure was pleasing to watch. Against a slick, aggressive side as part of a makeshift defence, he was never flustered.
The game’s early moments were decorated by another fairly experienced player. Teenager Jones - the eventual match-winner - had two shots in succession; the first was too close to Ajax goalkeeper Andre Onana with the second aimed towards the top right corner, but cannoning off the post.
Ajax were caressing the ball, but it was Liverpool looking more dangerous when they took hold of it. The visitors grew into the encounter around the 20-minute mark with David Neres, Dusan Tadic and Davy Klaassen particularly sparking into life.
Kelleher was forced into his first major test after the half-hour mark. Left with a mass of time and space, Noussair Mazraoui whipped a rising shot that the Irish keeper, at full stretch, tipped over.
The goalless opening 45 ended in a flurry of almost-moments: a toe-poke by Fabinho thwarted Tadic, Andy Robertson found the side-netting after trying to catch out Onana and Sadio Mane cleared Klaassen’s effort at the near post.
The second period started in the same type. Mazraoui’s challenge stopped Jordan Henderson and Liverpool from troubling his goalkeeper, while at the other end, Klaassen wastefully headed wide from Neres’s delivery despite being unmarked.
Ajax looked to clicking in offence, while the hosts seemed to be creaking. That was not to be the actuality. Kelleher did brilliantly to keep out a Mazraoui strike with Neres hitting the outside of the post from the follow up.
That fluffed situation would quickly prove costly. At the other end, Williams curled in a superb ball deep from the right, which dropped towards the far post. Onana raced out, misjudged the flight of it and missed it altogether.
Jones, one of Liverpool’s best performers on the night, read it more effectively. He steered the dropping ball in from an acute angle to put the Premier League champions ahead.
Fabinho hacked clear an instant response from Klaassen as the game pinballed from one box to the other.
Roberto Firmino was introduced for the final 20 and was effervescent, nearly releasing Mane after superb solo play before seeing a shot being tipped onto the post by Onana.
With the match so open in the closing stanza, Liverpool surrendered a clutch of chances to give themselves greater comfort and knock the fight out of Ajax.
Kelleher tipped over a point-black header from substitute Klaas Jan Huntelaar in the final stages to cap his clean sheet.
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