HomeSportsFootballDarwin Nunez on target as Liverpool beat Ajax to reach Champions League...

Darwin Nunez on target as Liverpool beat Ajax to reach Champions League knockouts


It was a journey from ignominy to respectability. It is the story of Liverpool’s group, starting with the worst performance of Jurgen Klopp’s reign, before a run of four successive wins constituted such a fine salvage job that qualification was secured with a game to go. It was a theme of Liverpool’s night, with a wretched first 35 minutes giving way to an emphatic victory over Ajax.

It was the tale of Darwin Nunez’s evening, too. His first half brought an extraordinary miss, his second a rather more forgettable finish but the Uruguayan’s fourth goal in five games was the second of three Liverpool scored in an 11-minute burst.

The classier strikes came courtesy of Mohamed Salah and Harvey Elliott, as Ajax followed Barcelona, other semi-finalists in 2019, in exiting in the pool stages, Liverpool ensured they will be in the last 16, albeit almost certainly as runners-up to the all-conquering Napoli side.

It is a triumph for Salah, too. He was dreadful in Naples, outclassed by Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, substituted with the game gone and only Luis Diaz posing a threat. Yet since then, he has scored six goals in four games, including the Champions League’s fastest ever hat-trick. Liverpool’s progress has stemmed from his predatory prowess.

The cliché is that goals change games, but some strikes transform them. Liverpool were disjointed and dreadful and could conceivably have been two adrift until two glorious touches.

The first came from the man captaining Liverpool for the 250th time. Jordan Henderson is more artisan than artist, but his was a pass of great delicacy and invention, whipped with the outside of his right boot into Salah’s path. The Egyptian’s first-time finish was similarly nonchalant, deftly flicked rather than thumped.

Yet if Salah was upstaged, it was because Nunez contrived to conjure a miss for the ages. It was an open goal and, as he was just inside the six-yard box, among the easier ones. But, after a surge from Andy Robertson and an unselfish pass from Roberto Firmino, Nunez struck the post.

But a redemption of sorts came quickly. Liverpool had preyed on Ajax’s frailties from set-pieces at Anfield; it brought Joel Matip’s winner then and put them out of reach in Amsterdam with Nunez afforded too much room to head in Robertson’s corner. Once again he hit the post; this time, it was the inside of the upright and the ball went in.

Nunez celebrated scoring Liverpool’s second goal after a scarcely-believable miss earlier

(PA)

And Firmino got the assist he deserved earlier. Elliott scored a second goal in as many games at this level, a rasping shot from an acute angle after the Brazilian, locating acres of space, supplied the defence-splitting pass. It meant that, while Liverpool are yet to win on the road in the Premier League this season, they took the aggregate score from their last two Champions League trips to 10-1.

It might have been more had Klopp not taken the chance to rest and rotate. Stefan Bajcetic, who owed his place in the Champions League squad to the incorrect diagnosis that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Naby Keita would not be fit for the group stage, was granted 20 minutes. Nunez, Elliott and Henderson were among those to make way,

Ajax, meanwhile, have conceded 13 goals in their last three matches at this level. Their previous home match had brought the humiliation of a 6-1 thrashing by Napoli, and they began with the air of a side intent on proving a point. There was a dash of flair as Edson Alvarez sent Firmino and Nunez running the wrong way with the cutest of Cruyff turns; when executed so expertly, it is not sacrilege to do a Cruyff turn in the Johan Cruyff Arena.

Ajax had started off by pinning Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold back, freeing up space in an open midfield in which Steven Berghuis had a licence to roam. He had curled a shot wide and Dusan Tadic had one crucially blocked by Alexander-Arnold but the best chance was the first.

Salah opened the scoring after Jordan Henderson’s superb pass

(Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

And, in a match where each side struck the woodwork when they should have scored, the costly piece of profligacy came from Ajax. Teed up by Brian Brobbey, Berghuis struck the foot of the post. It was just the third minute and, for a Liverpool team who had conceded in the first at Arsenal and the fifth at Napoli, this seemed an addition to their litany of bad starts.

They were sloppy. Klopp had reverted to 4-3-3 after six matches playing variants of 4-4-2 but that was no explanation for their initial struggles. Neither their dreadful third kit, which they were wearing for the first time, or Ajax’s magnificently silly pre-match playlist counted as a mitigating factor until the real Liverpool, which Virgil van Dijk had demanded before the game, was unveiled by Henderson and Salah.

And, for the second successive European game, they mustered a quick treble. After Salah’s record-breaking hat-trick in Glasgow came three quick goals, sandwiching a stunning miss. Embarrassed at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona, Liverpool prevailed at a ground named after another of the all-time greats, in Cruyff.

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