It was not quite the shellacking some had expected, but Liverpool nevertheless made sure to take another three points from Maribor, the weakest link in their group, and strengthen their hopes of qualifying for the knock-out stages of this season’s Champions League.
Anfield was made to wait, with Mohamed Salah, Emre Can and Daniel Sturridge eventually breaking the visitors’ resolve in the second half, while James Milner missed a penalty. Yet even after scoring seven against this opposition a fortnight ago, the margin of victory here mattered little. To win is of far more importance.
Liverpool will now travel to Seville later this month top of Group E and a point clear of the Andalusians, knowing a win will take them through to the knock-out stages for the first time in nine long years.
It took Klopp’s side just four minutes to break the deadlock in Slovenia, but Darko Milanic, he of a 32-day tenure at Massimo Cellino’s Leeds United, set his team up more conservatively for this trip to Merseyside. It was clear from the first whistle that Liverpool and the Anfield crowd would need to be patient this time and wait for the moment to pounce.
James Milner found a rare route in behind Maribor’s low block in the opening stages, slipping through the line in the inside-right channel, but instead of shooting at goal he unselfishly elected to tee up Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, whose path to goal was well blocked off.
The 24-year-old, handed only his second start since arriving from Arsenal in the summer, did not have to wait long for another chance to fall his way when, shortly after, he met Roberto Firmino’s cross from the right but under pressure, he lofted a scuffed effort over the crossbar.
Firmino himself then went close with Liverpool’s best chance of the opening half, with a header that caught a deflection from Maribor’s Jean-Claude Billong. His goalkeeper, Jasmin Handanovic, cousin of Internazionale’s Samir, acrobatically tipped the ball onto his own crossbar.
The first signs of discontent and calls for urgency from the Anfield crowd began to creep in but still Liverpool could not find a way to slip red shirts in behind Milanic’s deep-lying defence. Instead, yet another chance came aerially from the right flank and again, a header was off-target, this time from Emre Can.
Liverpool had a clear ‘Plan B’, they just needed it to come off and minutes into the second half, it did. Another cross from the boot of Trent Alexander-Arnold was swung in and this time, Salah stole a yard in front of Aleksander Rajcevic to divert the ball in with an outstretched left leg.
Anfield celebrated both in relief and in the hope that the contest would now open up. The hosts picked up where they had left off and when Firmino was brought down clumsily in the penalty area, Milner was given an opportunity to extend their lead from the spot. For the third time already this season, a Liverpool player failed to convert as Handanovic pushed the midfielder’s effort against the upright.
More chances were spurned still. Firmino had an attempt from close range turned away by the goalkeeper’s heel and, after being picked out by a excellent Alberto Moreno cross, Salah should have done better than fire a point-blank range header over.
Liverpool’s wastefulness frustrated their fans, but it never seemed likely to prove fatal given Maribor’s lack of intent. Eventually, the second came and Milner atoned for his penalty miss by supplying Can with a delightful one-two, allowing his midfield partner to slice a first-time finish into the corner of the visitors’ net.
The contest was all but over, save a few Maribor forays forward and one powerful strike by Martin Milec that Loris Karius comfortably beat down to the ground. Liverpool casually searched for a third to crown the night off and found it through substitute Daniel Sturridge, who drove home Moreno's cross from inside the six-yard box after finding space at the far post.
Liverpool (4-3-3): Karius, Alexander-Arnold, Matip, Klavan, Moreno, Can, Milner, Wijnaldum (Henderson 17), Salah (Sturridge 74), Oxlade-Chamberlain, Firmino (Grujic 85).
Substitutes not used: Mignolet, Gomez, Robertson, Solanke.
NK Maribor (3-4-3): Handanovic; Billong, Rajcevic, Suler; Milec, Pihler, Kabha, Viler; Hotic (Ahmedi 81), Mesanhovic (Tavares 58), Bohar (Bajde 69).
Substitutes not used: Obradovic, Vrhovec, Vrsic, Palcic.
Referee: Ivan Kruzliak (Slovakia)
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