Liverpool’s habit of fashioning European theatre very nearly proved their undoing as a first-half performance full of swagger gave way to a nightmarish spell after the break.
In little over 20 match minutes, the Reds surrendered a three-goal advantage they had so sublimely built, leaving stunned supporters fearing the worst.
But soon the cogs of the winning machine started turning again, with Mohamed Salah striking the decisive blow to get the reigning champions off the mark.
This wasn’t quite the kind of goal-fest we craved, but it’s nonetheless left us with plenty of eye-catching numbers to pore over.
Anfield solidity deserts erratic Reds
The last team to come to Anfield in the Champions League and score three goals was Real Madrid, the then-holders, back in October 2014. In that 3-0 defeat, incidentally our last European home reverse, it was Cristiano Ronaldo who ran the show. This time it was the little-known Takumi Minamino.
More broadly, Salzburg became only the second team to net an Anfield treble since West Bromwich Albion in January 2018 (Crystal Palace being the other only side to do so since – a curious trio).
Liverpool have displayed excellent game management in taking the sting out of plenty of their domestic contests, but it appears that has deserted them on the continental stage, where they more often seem to edge frantic clashes.
In fact, 47 goals have been scored in Champions League games at Anfield since the beginning of the 2017/18 season – seven more than any venue in Europe.
Joe Gomez and Virgil van Dijk reformed a defensive partnership which shipped only six league goals between the start of last season and Gomez’s leg fracture against Burnley in December, but here it was anything but convincing.
They allowed five shots on Adrian’s goal, a tally only matched among Anfield visitors by Barcelona and PSG last term.
Van Dijk, who scientists have warned may in fact be human, was dribbled past for the second time this season before Hwang Hee-chan steered in the opener. Envious rival fans can revel in that one.
Fingers will be pointed at the centre-halves but some of them ought to be shifted in the direction of Georginio Wijnaldum and Jordan Henderson, who offered the back-four scant protection in that disastrous period.
Henderson in particular was a shadow of his usual self, failing to make a tackle or an interception, with Wijnaldum offering only a single recovery himself.
It was Liverpool’s defensive unit that came undone.
Saviour Salah nears Gerrard’s record
Mohamed Salah ended a three-game scoring drought with his vital double and in doing so moved into potential history-making position.
He has now scored 17 Champions League goals in a Liverpool shirt, only four shy of Steven Gerrard’s all-time record. It’s feasible that Salah could not only match but surpass the former skipper before the end of the group stage.
Mané, who now has 15 under his belt, is sure to be hot in his heels.
Credit too to Roberto Firmino, who may not have got among the goals but is the only player, having teed-up each of his partners in crime, to have scored and assisted 10 goals in this competition since the start of 17/18.
The Napoli defeat made this close to a must-win game for Liverpool, even so early on in their title defence. And win it they did, albeit in circumstances none of the 50,000+ inside Anfield would have envisioned.
Beat Genk home and away and Liverpool will have a very healthy nine points on the board with two matches to spare.
But perhaps that task is simpler than it sounds, not least because Liverpool have only beaten Maribor on the road in the group stages under Jurgen Klopp.
In six of our last seven CL campaigns, we have failed to pick up maximum points from the middling double-header.
After tonight’s major scare, let’s hope our passage to the knockout rounds is a mere cruise from here on in.