Preparation for Tuesday night’s game at Anfield started with partially correct rumors: home goalkeeper Alisson was unavailable for selection, but not for rounds reasons.
Jurgen Klopp clarified that it was not linked to Covid by noise, but because of a hamstring, which should see the Brazil international miss Sunday’s test against Wolves.
Liverpool’s kick-off injured list was just two forwards short of an XI that could pose a formidable challenge in the top flight and in Europe: Alisson, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Joe Gomez, Virgil van Dijk, James Milner, Naby Keita, Thiago, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Xherdan Shaqiri.
But their young guns sent them back in the next round.
Kelleher, 22, was selected ahead of Adrian for his Champions League arc. “A goalkeeper who plays football, a good goalscorer” was how Klopp described him and the manager applauded his contributions throughout the game.
Barring the big and decisive saves, Kelleher’s calm was nice to watch. Against a smooth and aggressive side as part of a makeshift defense, he was never agitated.
The first moments of the game were decorated by another fairly experienced player. Teenager Jones – the eventual winner of the match – had two successive shots; the former was too close to Ajax goalkeeper Andre Onana with the latter pointed to the upper right corner, but channeling out of the post.
Ajax stroked the ball, but it was Liverpool who looked more dangerous when they took it. Visitors grew up meeting around the 20-minute mark with David Neres, Dusan Tadic and Davy Klaassen particularly sparkling in life.
Kelleher was forced to his first major test after the half hour. Starting with a mass of time and space, Noussair Mazraoui whipped up a soaring shot that the Irish goalkeeper, at full length, knocked down.
The 45-year-old goalless opening ended with a flurry of almost moments: a kick from Fabinho thwarted Tadic, Andy Robertson found the side net after trying to catch Onana and Sadio Mane erased the effort from Klaassen at the near post.
The second period started in the same type. Mazraoui’s challenge kept Jordan Henderson and Liverpool from disturbing his goalkeeper, while on the other end Klaassen escaped Neres’ delivery despite not being scored.
Ajax seemed to click in attack, while the hosts seemed to squeal. It didn’t have to be reality. Kelleher was brilliantly able to prevent a Mazraoui strike with Neres hitting the outside of the follow-up post.
This bloated situation would quickly prove costly. At the other end, Williams curled up in a superb deep ball from the right, which fell to the far post. Onana rushed forward, misjudged her flight and completely missed it.
Jones, one of Liverpool’s best players that night, read it more effectively. He directed the falling ball from a sharp angle to give the Premier League champions a head start.
Fabinho hacked into an instant response from Klaassen as the game moved from box to box.
Roberto Firmino was featured for the last 20 and was effervescent, almost freeing Mane after some superb solo play before seeing a shot flipped over the post by Onana.
With the game so open in the final stanza, Liverpool gave up a handful of opportunities to give themselves more comfort and end Ajax’s fight.
Kelleher knocked down a point black header from substitute Klaas Jan Huntelaar in the final stages to top off his clean sheet.