Two minutes remaining, veteran predator Klaas-Jan Huntelaar climbed unbranded six yards from goal and Ajax prepared to celebrate an entertaining draw at Anfield. But Caoimhin Kelleher, drafted for Liverpool’s goal in place of injured Alisson, decreed the opposite, saving the Ajax striker superbly and sealing Liverpool’s victory on an unforgettable Champions League start. Liverpool only needed one point to reserve their place in the knockout stage, but Kelleher’s display contributed to a welcome victory which elicited a hug following the final whistle from coach Jürgen Klopp.
Klopp’s injury problems escalated ahead of the game when Alisson suffered a hamstring injury in training. The influential goalkeeper, the eighth member of Liverpool’s senior squad currently on the casualty list, is expected to be sidelined for a fortnight. He was replaced by Republic of Ireland Under-21 international Kelleher, who was preferred over the more experienced Adrián on his European debut. The 22-year-old’s previous four appearances had been in the FA Cup and the Coupe de la Ligue.
Initially, Liverpool’s wealth in attack offered the best protection for their young keeper as Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mané and Diogo Jota, closely followed by Edson Álvarez throughout, pissed off Ajax’s defense on several occasions. A reckless distribution added to the visitors’ difficulties, but their confidence increased as the first half progressed and they controlled possession to a worrying degree for Klopp.
The first two chances of the match fell to Curtis Jones due to the good timing of his runs to the edge of Ajax’s penalty area. Jones’ opening effort, from Mané’s layoff, was too close to Andre Onana for the purpose of visitation. The midfielder learned his lesson and his second shot, following Salah’s layoff, arched around Onana to hit the post with the goalkeeper rooted there. Liverpool’s push and threat, as well as Ajax’s uncertainty at the back, have proven to be misleading. Onana was not seriously troubled again before the break as Ajax asserted themselves in midfield and thrived on their left flank.
Central midfielder Ryan Gravenberch was central to improving the visitors. Their first chance came between shots from Jones, but Dusan Tadic overstretched once found by David Neres in the Liverpool area and faced a non-existent teammate instead of shooting. A grateful Fabinho has absorbed the danger. Antony sliced up a good chance by cutting inside on his left foot and Davy Klaassen, the former Everton midfielder, forced Kelleher to his first save, but was offside when he managed a goal left wing cross.
Klaassen was inches away from connecting with another delivery from the left, from Tadic, and Kelleher flipped when Noussair Mazraoui aimed for the top corner from nearly 30 yards.
The growing threat from Ajax was not Klopp’s only concern. Andy Robertson received lengthy treatment on his left ankle but was able to continue. Perr Schuurs received a yellow card when he knocked down Mane as the forward attempted to cross.
The Dutch champions may have been polite and inventive in possession, but they failed to extend Kelleher like they should have. Klaassen, anonymous and five yards away, took a broad head after a well-crafted free kick freed Neres into space in the lower left. Neres then made his way into the area but went for glory from a tight angle with two better-placed teammates to his right. His shot sailed safely into the side net. Minutes later, from a slightly better position, Neres looked certain to open the scoring after Kelleher impressively turned around Mazraoui’s weak training at full length. This time he hit the post.
But Ajax were responsible for his downfall at both ends of the pitch. The second half went from start to finish and Liverpool’s press was much more effective in disrupting the visitors’ calm and stretching their defense. However, the breakthrough was packaged in gift wrap. Onana completely misread both the flight of the ball and the impending danger when Neco Williams penetrated deep into Ajax’s penalty area.
The Ajax keeper went out of his line but let the cross go for a goal kick. Jones had bet on such a mistake and, just inches from the start line, flew into an unguarded net. Onana made an excellent save in the dying moments to transform Roberto Firmino’s shot on the post, but there was no redemption for the Cameroon international.