Liverpool qualified for the last sixteen of the Champions League after a 1-0 win over Ajax at Anfield.
Curtis Jones scored the only goal of a scrappy game as the rotated and depleted Reds dug deep to seal the victory. The three points — plus Midtjylland drawing away to Atalanta — means the 2019 Champions will win group D, regardless of their result in Denmark next week.
Injuries have bedevilled Jurgen Klopp this season, and the team was once afflicted when it emerged that Alisson will miss ten days with a hamstring strain. Adrian expected to start in the Brazilian’s stead, but Klopp opted for Caoimhin Kelleher and the Irishman repaid his manager’s faith with a brilliant performance. With accurate distribution off either foot and vital saves, the 22-year-old marked his first start at this level with style.
Similarly Neco Williams — who kept the dangerous David Neres quiet and provided the only assist of the game in a strong all-round showing — and Jones, who combined for the young Liverpudlians goal, stood up well to the task in what was a proud night for the club’s academy.
Needing a result to keep their chances of progressing alive, Ajax came to attack but that mentality left them exposed on the break and Liverpool manufactured some early chances through gegenpressing. Jones struck the post with Andre Onana beaten all ends up and other openings in the visitors defence were squandered by the poor touches and decision making of the front three, with Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah particularly guilty.
The 2019 semi-finalists settled after a ropey opening ten minutes and began to string together lengthy passing moves, most of which didn’t trouble the hosts defence. The closest Ajax came to a goal in the first half came when Noussair Mazraoui, the right-back, had a shot from distance that Kelleher confidently parried over the bar.
Visibly jaded, Liverpool would have been glad of the respite of the interval and the teams went into the break at 0-0.
The Reds’ tempo and application was improved in the opening throes of the second half and some promising moves came to an end when some bad decisions — an area in which Mane, who looked shattered, was especially poor — and touches hampered decent situations.
Continuing to press, Liverpool were rewarded for their persistence close to the hour mark. After receiving a pass from Jordan Henderson, Williams, switching the ball onto his weaker left foot, floated a looping cross to the back post. Onana in the Ajax goal misjudged the flight of the ball and Jones sensed the confusion and peeled away to tap the ball into an empty net.
The Dutch team, with Dusan Tadic prominent in their creativity stakes, continued to pile forward in search of a goal, bringing Zakaria Labyad — an attacking midfielder — on in place of defender Edson Alvarez. Experienced striker Klaas Jan Huntelaar was also introduced.
Liverpool did have chances on the counter-attack, especially through an oddly misfiring Salah and Roberto Firmino — who was introduced for Diogo Jota — had the best but his shot from the centre of the box was saved by Onana when he should have scored. The hosts largely battened down the hatches and asked Ajax to shoot their best shot in the closing minutes of the game.
Joel Matip and Fabinho were superb in the heart of the Reds’ defence all night, but on the one occasion when their positioning and concentration lapsed, Kelleher was on hand to bail them out. A looping ball into the box found the head of Huntelaar with Fabinho a bystander. The 37-year-old forward nodded towards goal, but Kelleher expertly redirected the header over the bar. The chance and stop felt similar — although not as good a save — to Arkadiusz Milik’s for Napoli against Alisson Becker in 2018.
Kelleher’s stop was the last notable piece of action in an often scrappy game and Liverpool find themselves in the next round as group winners.
Liverpool team: Kelleher; Williams, Matip, Fabinho, Robertson; Wijnaldum, Henderson, Jones, Salah, Jota, Mane.
Replacements: Firmino for Jota, Williams for Salah.