Liverpool weren’t entirely convincing in beating LASK with a second-string side in their Europa League opener, but another win from behind is in the books and there really is nothing for them to fear in this competition.
Every manager wants a squad of players who can deliver a consistency of performance and style to match that of the first XI.
In that regard, this was very much mission accomplished as a second-string Liverpool side started sluggishly against LASK, fell behind to a fine goal on the quarter-hour, laboured unconvincingly for a bit and ultimately won the game handily.
For this Europa League opener, see Premier League wins over Bournemouth and Wolves and to a lesser extent Newcastle.
Of course, Thursday nights in the Europa League are not where Liverpool want or expect to be and there was no surprise to see the wholesale changes made to the starting line-up. The fact it was a full 11 changes may have raised a few eyebrows, but it was always likelier Jurgen Klopp would go that way than a mere five or six.
It also goes some way to excusing the vague sense of incoherence about the performance; these are not players used to playing with each other and Liverpool at their best are a team full of players who know exactly what their team-mates are going to do.
The Reds – or tonight the Lilacs – have a group that really ought to pose minimal barriers to progress and Klopp will be able to roll the selection dice throughout the group stage and probably have few problems. And the second-stringers should improve for the run and will by definition start to know each other a bit better.
LASK’s cleverly-worked corner routine handed the Austrians a deserved lead as two runners blocked off Liverpool defenders to allow Florian Flecker to rifle home an unstoppable shot. Liverpool huffed and puffed for the rest of the half, but should have equalised through Darwin Nunez’s point-blank header that he directed too close to the keeper.
He got the equaliser soon after the break, but there was an element of fortune about the softly awarded penalty that got Liverpool back on terms. The move that led to Luis Diaz slicing wide but then being apparently caught by a LASK defender was one to sum up Liverpool’s attacking play up to that point. Too slow, too ponderous, too many touches. Quicker movement of the ball would have given the attacker a better chance of getting his shot away clean, albeit maybe not getting the penalty. Maybe there was method to the madness after all.
Certainly, Liverpool’s attacking play improved markedly after that. Some fairly handy substitutes, including Mo Salah in what is even for him a rare patch of quite brilliant creative and scoring form, no doubt contributed to that. But it was three starters who did what Liverpool had failed to do all night up to that point to give them a lead that always looked likely to be decisive.
Ryan Gravenberch’s run down the right was a fine one, but it needed Harvey Elliott to both see its potential and realise it with the right pass at the right time and the right pace. For once, it came, and Gravenberch’s cross for Luis Diaz to finish was equally ideal.
It’s no real criticism of anyone else to note that upon his introduction Salah was immediately operating on a different level to everyone else. That’s pretty standard; he’s exceptional. This is not news, but his gloss-applying third goal was a thing of quick-footed, quick-witted beauty and a goal beyond the ken of most.
Klopp’s reaction told you what he thought of the goal, but while he was delighted to see it he will also have been mildly miffed to have felt it necessary to deploy the greatest of his many fine attacking options in these games.
The 11 changes tell you where the Europa League currently ranks in Liverpool’s priorities, but there’s no doubt that there’s a huge chance here for Liverpool to win the biggest tournament Klopp has yet to claim in his time at Anfield. It’s not where they want to be, but they could easily make the most of it. There is nobody currently in the tournament they should fear, and it’s unlikely anyone better than Liverpool will drop in from the Champions League either.
They should ease through the group stage with this second-string side and a sprinkling of stardust from the bench; after that, all things become possible.