Premier League champions Liverpool were helped by an own goal from Nicolas Tagliafico to get off to a winning start in the Champions League against Ajax.
Jurgen Klopp’s injury-hit side, who were without talisman Virgil van Dijk, were tested by Ajax but did enough to leave Amsterdam with a clean sheet.
Tagliafico sliced Sadio Mane’s cross into his own net with 10 minutes of the first half remaining, moments after Liverpool keeper Adrian denied Quincy Promes from close range.
Liverpool’s Fabinho then acrobatically cleared Dusan Tadic’s lob off the line, before Davy Klaassen’s powerful effort bounced off the inside of the post in the second half.
The Reds, who also face Atalanta and Midtjylland in Group D, were returning to Europe as English champions for the first time since 1984-85.
Van Dijk’s presence missed but not costly
All eyes were on Liverpool’s defence in the absence of Van Dijk and the injured Joel Matip.
Brazilian midfielder Fabinho, who started at centre-back in the victory over Chelsea last month, lined up alongside Joe Gomez in defence, while Adrian continued to deputise for number one keeper Alisson.
There were nerves early-on – Gomez and Adrian had a mix-up which resulted in the keeper clearing it against the England international inside their own area within three minutes.
And Ajax looked to exploit any weakness out of possession by dropping deep, encouraging Liverpool’s defence to have the ball and forcing them to use Adrian as a passback option.
They had some success in the first half, as Liverpool rode periods of pressure – Fabinho had to produce a smart tackle to block Tadic, while Tagliafico almost escaped from Gomez before Adrian pushed him wide in the box.
Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp reacted frantically on the touchline, waving his arms and shouting at his players as he demanded more urgency and communication.
But as the game wore on, Liverpool looked more comfortable out of possession, with midfielder James Milner dropping deep to provide added support.
Adrian’s smart save from Promes and Fabinho’s goalline heroics ultimately proved crucial and Klopp will no doubt be delighted with a clean sheet and a win in their first group game of what has been a frustrating week for his squad.
Klopp’s gambles pay off
Klopp’s tactics and rotation were put to the test in Amsterdam as he managed the injuries in defence with a weaker squad.
Liverpool-born teenager Curtis Jones was handed a first European appearance in midfield, while Milner made his third start this season.
It meant Liverpool’s well-practised defensive high line was more conservative and the front three of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Mane were more reliant on opportunities on the break.
The goal came from nothing – Mane turning sharply in the box and scuffing his cross before getting a fortunate touch from Tagliafico – but Liverpool maintained that threat from the counter-attack throughout.
Klopp, who gambled slightly with his midfield selection – leaving skipper Jordan Henderson on the bench – took another risk with the slim lead when he pulled all three of his forwards off on the hour.
But the risk paid off and as Ajax pushed for an equaliser, substitutes Diogo Jota and Takumi Minamino showed glimpses of quality and both had chances to score late-on.
‘Fabinho was immense’ – analysis
Former Liverpool defender Stephen Warnock on BBC Radio 5 Live:
“Fabinho was immense. Everything he did. He stepped into the play and broke things up, he stepped in at the right times when he knew there was a danger and headed everything that came into the box.
“What I liked about it was he didn’t have the attitude of ‘I have to be Virgil van Dijk, where I pull things down and play out from the back.’ If it needs to go, it goes.
“He just dealt with situations comfortably and cleared his lines and that sounds really easy at times but it’s knowing your limits and knowing how to play.”
‘Good enough to win the game’
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp, speaking to BT Sport: “It was good enough to win the game. That’s what you need. I think both teams could play better football. At moments it was wild. The pitch was deep and muddy. Three days ago it looked completely different and in training yesterday it looked different.
“But we did not take our chances which was a shame. Ajax had a big one which hit the post. When you’re 1-0 up, these things can happen. But overall I’m happy with the game. It was not sunshine football but we wanted three points and we got it.”
The best of the stats
- Liverpool are unbeaten in their last seven away trips against Dutch opponents, keeping a clean sheet in five of those encounters (W4 D3).
- Ajax have won only one of their previous seven games against English opponents in European competition (D2 L4), remaining winless in the most recent four encounters since a 1-0 victory against Tottenham in the UEFA Champions League semi-final first leg in 2018/19.
- Liverpool kept just their second clean sheet in the Champions League since the start of last season, with the other coming in their last group stage game of 2019/20 at Red Bull Salzburg.
- Jurgen Klopp substituted Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mané and Robert Firmino in the same game for only the 5th occasion in his reign as Liverpool manager.
- Nicolas Tagliafico is the first Ajax player to score an own goal in the Champions League since Vurnon Anita against Real Madrid in September 2010. Indeed, it was only the second own goal Liverpool have benefited from in the Champions League after Deportivo de La Coruña’s Jorge Andrade in November 2004.
- At 34 years and 291 days, James Milner became the 3rd oldest player to appear for Liverpool in the European Cup/Champions League, after Gary McAllister (37y 84d) and Ian Callaghan (35y 353d). In contrast, Curtis Jones became the 5th youngest Champions League outfielder to start for Liverpool (19y 265d).
Liverpool return to Premier League action on Saturday, 24 October (20:00 BST kick-off) when they host Sheffield United at Anfield. They next face Midtjylland in the Champions League on Tuesday, 27 October (20:00 BST).
- 3SchuursSubstituted forTraoréat 84′minutes
- 6KlaassenSubstituted forEkkelenkampat 74′minutes
- 17BlindSubstituted forHuntelaarat 83′minutes
- 7Neres CamposSubstituted forLabyadat 74′minutes
- 20KudusSubstituted forPromesat 9′minutesBooked at 90mins
- 66Alexander-ArnoldBooked at 80mins
- 7MilnerBooked at 38minsSubstituted forR Williamsat 90+2′minutes
- 17JonesSubstituted forHendersonat 45′minutes
- 11SalahSubstituted forShaqiriat 60′minutes
- 9FirminoSubstituted forJotaat 60′minutes
- 10ManéSubstituted forMinaminoat 60′minutes
- 46R Williams
- 76N Williams
- Dr. Felix Brych
Match ends, Ajax 0, Liverpool 1.
Second Half ends, Ajax 0, Liverpool 1.
Attempt missed. Jurgen Ekkelenkamp (Ajax) right footed shot from the centre of the box is too high.
Attempt blocked. Xherdan Shaqiri (Liverpool) left footed shot from the centre of the box is blocked. Assisted by Takumi Minamino.
Quincy Promes (Ajax) is shown the yellow card for a bad foul.
Georginio Wijnaldum (Liverpool) wins a free kick in the attacking half.
Foul by Quincy Promes (Ajax).
Substitution, Liverpool. Rhys Williams replaces James Milner.
Corner, Liverpool. Conceded by André Onana.
Attempt saved. Takumi Minamino (Liverpool) right footed shot from a difficult angle on the right is saved in the centre of the goal. Assisted by Xherdan Shaqiri.
Attempt saved. Georginio Wijnaldum (Liverpool) right footed shot from outside the box is saved in the centre of the goal. Assisted by Diogo Jota.
James Milner (Liverpool) wins a free kick in the defensive half.
Foul by Lassina Traoré (Ajax).
Attempt saved. Lassina Traoré (Ajax) with an attempt from the centre of the box is saved in the top centre of the goal. Assisted by Klaas Jan Huntelaar with a headed pass.
Attempt blocked. Georginio Wijnaldum (Liverpool) right footed shot from outside the box is blocked.
Attempt blocked. Diogo Jota (Liverpool) left footed shot from the left side of the box is blocked.
Foul by Xherdan Shaqiri (Liverpool).
Ryan Gravenberch (Ajax) wins a free kick on the right wing.
Substitution, Ajax. Lassina Traoré replaces Perr Schuurs.
Substitution, Ajax. Klaas Jan Huntelaar replaces Daley Blind.