Act 1, Scene 1 of Liverpool Without Virgil van Dijk was marked by Fabinho morphing into a centre-back extraordinaire in the 1-0 Champions League victory at Ajax.
England’s best began their European crusade with the objective of not letting the absence of the world’s best defender and Alisson, one of its foremost goalkeepers, colour their performance or the commentary of the result. Against expectation, Liverpool kept a clean sheet.
Stationed alongside the excellent Joe Gomez, Fabinho calmed the nerves and nullified the hosts in a largely untidy first half.
The Brazilian international produced a top-shelf clearance to thwart a certain goal, made three others, along with four tackles, two interceptions and a block – and that was just in the opening 45 minutes. By the end of the game, he’d won 80% of his duels.
Gomez, meanwhile, produced 11 ball recoveries and 10 tackles, winning 85.7% of his battles. The pair delivered a steely display to build on during Van Dijk’s lengthy absence.
At the other end of the pitch, Liverpool were gifted the opener after the half-hour mark courtesy of a farcical own goal from Nicolas Tagliafico, who tried but failed to properly react to Sadio Mane’s scuffed effort across the box, only managing to shank it into his own net under no pressure.
Ajax pressed on trying to atone for that error, with Dusan Tadic seeming certain to restore parity after chasing down a bouncing ball and chipping Adrian.
Just as the ball was set to cross the line, Fabinho recovered in time to acrobatically scissor it away to crown his impeccable first-half showing.
Liverpool’s defensive start was not as assured as that clearance. Adrian knocked into Gomez within two minutes, with the centre-back not happy that the goalkeeper didn’t stay and wait for the backpass, rather rushing out to clear.
There were a few more sloppy incidents extending to the midfield that incensed Jurgen Klopp, but Liverpool were not severely troubled.
Quincy Promes, on early to replace the injured Mohammed Kudus, tried to dice Liverpool with slick interplay in combination with Tadic and David Neres. However, it was Davy Klaassen who went closest for the Dutch side with a super strike that cannoned off the inside of the right-hand post at the start of the second half.
Liverpool’s intention to hit their front three early was evident from the off. Mane, in particular, had looked in one of those him-against-the-world-moods, where his every action is shaped to win the game.
Klopp was able to withdraw the Senegal international, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino on 60 minutes for Diogo Jota, Xherdan Shaqiri and Takumi Minamino – the trio all lively as subs.
Jordan Henderson, on at half-time and only recently back from injury, was also granted more minutes as Klopp tried and mesh rhythm with rotation ahead of an intense stanza in the schedule.
Given the circumstances, this was a match for Liverpool to get through, to manage, to win with minimal fuss. In that context, it was mission achieved.
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