AMSTERDAM — Liverpool ran out 3-0 victors against Ajax in Amsterdam as they confirmed their place in the final 16 of the Champions League.
Ajax started the match the better of the two sides and should’ve been 2-0 up after 35 minutes, but it was Liverpool who went into the break 1-0 to the good and against the run of play after Mohammed Salah chipped past an on-rushing Remko Pasveer.
The second half saw Liverpool take control of the match and they added two more through the head of Darwin Nunez and another from Harvey Elliott, who hammered home their third. By that point, Ajax fans started to abandon their seats and filter out of the Dutch stadium.
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Liverpool will need a huge win against Napoli next week at Anfield if they are to top Group A. For Ajax, this defeat marks the end to their Champions League run and they need a point against Rangers if they are to secure a spot in the Europa League.
ESPN’s Tom Hamilton has more reaction and analysis from Johan Cruyff Stadium.
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1. After slow start in Champions League, job done for Liverpool
Had you offered this outcome of qualifying for the knockout stages with a game to play to Jurgen Klopp back late evening on Sept. 7, he’d have taken it in a heartbeat. Back then he’d just seen his Liverpool team collapse to a 4-1 defeat to Napoli in their group opener. It looked to be a reality check but in this season of mixed fortunes and outlier results, it was the only blip to their Champions League campaign so far this term.
Liverpool were lucky at times on Wednesday evening. Steven Berghuis should’ve scored after just two minutes but hit the post from just yards out with Alisson to beat, while Dusan Tadic had a great chance blocked by Trent Alexander-Arnold. Both came in the first 35 minutes — the odd split second serendipitous shift and Liverpool would’ve been 2-0 down.
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But then came those moments which change matches, and sometimes seasons. Jordan Henderson’s delightful, bewitching pass found Salah who dinked it over the on-rushing Pasveer to give Liverpool that 1-0 lead in the 42nd minute. From there they added two more early on in the second half and Ajax were chasing shadows, unable to live up to the beat of the drum demanding more from their unwavering supporters.
This was a case of job done for Klopp. There were some concerning moments as the defence opened up, but there were far more familiar sights of Liverpool past and present as they were clinical in front of goal. A 3-0 win at Ajax is not something to downplay and progressing to the knockout stages with a game to spare is a feat given where they started.
2. Liverpool stalwarts deliver again, but some vulnerabilities show
Liverpool had the old staples of relatability to thank for this victory.
The spine of this team saw them through. Van Dijk was solid at centre back, Henderson impressive in that wide left conduit spot in midfield and he dovetailed well with Andy Robertson. Salah had one first-half chance and took it and he helped tee up Elliott’s goal with a wonderful pass.
Anchoring it all was Alisson at the back in his 200th appearance for the club. This was his 90th clean sheet and you cannot underplay just how significant a signing he has been for the club. He’s been the fulcrum for this group and was faultless on his milestone appearance. On such foundations, titles have been won.
While the old faithfuls are still delivering, Fabinho’s form remains a concern while Nunez put in a performance that mixed a hell of a lot of running, an alarming miss, and a clinical finish. It’s removing the middle of those three traits that will remain Klopp’s objective. Nunez’s first-half miss was poor for a striker of his standards (Roberto Firmino squared the ball to give Nunez a tap-in, but he somehow found the foot of the post, instead of the corner of Pasveer’s goal) but he took his second-half goal well, as he stooped to nod a Robertson corner home.
While Nunez can frustrate and exhilarate in the blink of an eye, elsewhere Harvey Elliott is growing into his role on the right side of Liverpool’s midfield. He was fantastic against Ajax and fully deserved his goal.
Klopp’s Liverpool have been looking for consistency this season, a quest summed up by their last four matches before tonight as they defeated Rangers, Man City and West Ham, only to then lose to Nottingham Forest. But this was a match where it was a familiar sight in the second-half as Liverpool frustrated the opposition, hit them with a one-two punch of clinical finishing and came away with a convincing victory.
3. Ajax look to be a side in transition
One of Ajax’s adopted club anthems is Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” and as Elliott’s shot flew past Pasveer to put Liverpool 3-0 up, the louder the crowd sang it. While Liverpool celebrated, the Ajax supporters rose in crescendo, launching Marley’s iconic song into the night air. It was less a funeral march, more a rousing reminder of what’s expected from the club — but also a realisation of where they are at.
Ajax’s Champions League hopes are over for this year as they look to the Europa League, but you can see this is a team in transition. They could’ve easily gone into the break ahead, but instead paid for profligacy in front of goal, and ended up unable to pin Liverpool back. Losing four group matches is a poor return but it’s symptomatic of where they are.
“Last time it was a different group,” said Ajax forward Dusan Tadic after Wednesday’s match. “We changed a lot of players but this is not a reason to lose a lot of games with this difference. This game should go in different direction if we make goals — it’d been a totally difficult game had we done that.”
The Ajax model is to prioritise youth, and recruit astutely but even they couldn’t have planned for a summer where they ended up losing Andre Onana, Antony, Nicolas Tagliafico, Lisandro Martinez, Sebastien Haller, Ryan Gravenberch and their manager Erik ten Hag. The replacements have experienced mixed fortunes to their start of life at Ajax — though Steven Bergwijn, Brian Brobbey and Calvin Bassey looked settled against Liverpool, right-back Jorge Sanchez struggled while the new faces were on the bench having not yet settled.
That’ll give the powers that be some food for thought in the corridors of Ajax. Alfred Schreuder’s tenure at Ajax has picked up in recent weeks after a slow start, but this team isn’t yet back up to the level we saw from the group that reached the semifinals in 2019, or won each of their six group stage matches last term. There’s a rebuild in progress at Ajax but there is plenty of reason for hope and optimism. Though this was the oldest XI Ajax have fielded in the Champions League — coming in at 27 years and 295 days — for a club that prides itself on its academy and youth, their standout player was one of the De Toekomst graduates in Jurrien Timber.
Timber played with a maturity which belied his meagre 21 years while his other fellow younger members of the team also played well. Bassey — a big-money recruit from Rangers — is still finding his feet, but coped with the Liverpool attack, while Brian Brobbey, in the extended squad for the World Cup, also looked dangerous and was a constant annoyance to his Dutch teammate Van Dijk. Kenneth Taylor managed 28 minutes off the bench and will likely slot back into Ajax’s midfield at the earliest opportunity once his fitness has picked up after injury so there’s still this solid underbelly of youth. They just need the squad to settle around them and keep hold of players like Edson Alvarez.
This will be a season of transition for Ajax as they continue their charge for the Eredivisie and now turn attention to the Europa League. They’ll trust in the club’s DNA to get back on track at Europe’s top table.
Ajax: Remko Pasveer 5, Jorge Sanchez 5, Jurrien Timber 7, Daley Blind 5, Calvin Bassey 6, Edson Alvarez 7, Steven Berghuis 6, Davy Klaassen 6, Steven Bergwijn 6, Dusan Tadic 6, Brian Brobbey 6
Subs: Owen Wijndal 6; Mohammed Kudus 5; Kenneth Taylor 6; Florian Grillitsch 6; Francisco Conceicao 6
Liverpool: Alisson 7, Trent Alexander-Arnold 7, Joe Gomez 7, Virgil van Dijk 7, Andrew Robertson 8, Fabinho 6, Jordan Henderson 7, Harvey Elliott 8, Mohamed Salah 8, Roberto Firmino 7, Darwin Nunez 7
Subs: Curtis Jones 6; Fabio Carvalho 6; James Milner 6; Stefan Bajcetic 6; Konstantinos Tsimikas 6
Best and worst performers
BEST: Harvey Elliott, Liverpool
The likes of Henderson, Firmino, Van Dijk, Salah and Alisson played well, but this was Elliott’s night. He was simply superb for Liverpool.
WORST: Remko Pasveer, Ajax
Pasveer had a night to forget in goal for Ajax. His distribution was poor, he was at fault for Liverpool’s first — though Salah’s finish was exquisite — and though he wasn’t helped by his defence at times, he struggled.
Highlights and notable moments
Liverpool did appear to be the brighter side from the opening whistle, but they left it late into the first half to open the scoring.
It was who else but Mohamed Salah who struck first with a delectable chip over Ajax goalkeeper Remko Pasveer.
The perfect touch from Mo Salah to send it in to the goal ??? pic.twitter.com/1HTjG9vJMI
— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) October 26, 2022
After the halftime break, Liverpool started scoring in earnest.
Only four minutes into the second half, Darwin Núñez doubled the lead for the Reds.
HE WASN’T GOING TO MISS THIS ONE ? pic.twitter.com/BIehjCH6P7
— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) October 26, 2022
Only two minutes later, Harvey Elliott was keen to get in on the action.
Although more 40 minutes remained in the match, it already felt over for Ajax.
Harvey Eliott on the tight angle ?? pic.twitter.com/MQM4JS6dQS
— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) October 26, 2022
After the match: What the players and managers said
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp: “The game started tricky for us as Ajax are a good team. The first half hour they were the better team, more settled than us. Their man-marking system is uncomfortable for us. We had to get used to that — that’s normal, it’s an away game in the Champions League. We were lucky in one situation [the Berghuis miss] and in the other situation it was a good block [Tadic’s shot].”
Klopp on Henderson’s injury: “I was worried as well as I saw the situation in front of me. I think it was knee on knee, a bruise, really painful but as far as I know now, he should be fine.”
Ajax manager Alfred Schreuder: “We have to focus on the development of the team. I see progression in the team, to lose 3-0 is bad, but I have to keep looking forward.”
Ajax forward Dusan Tadic: “I think we did good in the first 30, 40 minutes and if I score goal, it would be a different game. But we didn’t do it. Top teams punish you.”
Darwin Núñez scored his fifth goal of the season, and he is averaging a shot every six touches. That shooting rate ties him with Erling Haaland for first among all players in Europe’s top five leagues this season.
Mohamed Salah has six goals in the Champions League this season, tied with Kylian Mbappé for first. Only once has an African player finished as the top scorer in the UEFA Champions League: George Weah in 1994-95 with seven goals.
Ajax: The Dutch side enjoys a five-day rest before heading to Scotland to take on Rangers in the UEFA Champions League on Tuesday, Nov. 1 at 4 p.m. ET. Then shift back to the Dutch Eredivisie and host PSV Eindhoven on Sunday, Nov. 6.
Liverpool: The Reds turn their focus to the Premier League when they host Leeds United on Saturday, Oct. 29 at 2:45 p.m. ET. Then they shift back to UEFA Champions League action on Tuesday, Nov. 1, hosting Napoli.