Two minutes remained, veteran predator Klaas-Jan Huntelaar climbed unmarked six yards from goal and Ajax prepared to celebrate an entertaining draw at Anfield. But Caoimhin Kelleher, drafted into the Liverpool goal in place of the injured Alisson, decreed otherwise, saving superbly from the Ajax striker and sealing Liverpool’s victory on a Champions League debut to remember. Liverpool needed only a point to book their place in the knockout phase but Kelleher’s display was instrumental in delivering a welcome victory that prompted a bear-hug after the final whistle from his manager Jürgen Klopp.
Klopp’s injury problems increased before 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 up to a fortnight. He was replaced by the Republic of Ireland Under-21 international Kelleher, who was favoured over the more experienced Adrián for his European debut. The 22-year-old’s previous four appearances had come in the FA Cup and League Cup.
Initially Liverpool’s riches in attack offered the best protection for their young keeper as Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mané and Diogo Jota, who was tracked closely by Edson Álvarez throughout, unnerved the Ajax defence repeatedly. Careless distribution added to the visitors’ difficulties but their confidence grew as the first half progressed and they controlled possession to an unsettling degree as far as Klopp was concerned.
The first two chances of the game both fell to Curtis Jones as a result of timing his runs well to the edge of the Ajax penalty area. Jones’ opening effort, from Mané’s lay-off, was too close to André Onana in the visiting goal. The midfielder learned his lesson and his second shot, from Salah’s lay-off, arced around Onana only to thump the post with the goalkeeper rooted to the spot. Liverpool’s thrust and threat, along with Ajax’s uncertainty at the back, proved deceptive. Onana was not seriously troubled again before the break as Ajax asserted themselves in midfield and prospered down their left flank.
Ryan Gravenberch, the central midfielder, was at the heart of the visitors’ improvement. Their first chance arrived in-between Jones’ shots but Dusan Tadic overelaborated when found by David Neres inside the Liverpool area and squared to a non-existent teammate instead of shooting. A grateful Fabinho mopped up the danger. Antony sliced a good opportunity over when cutting inside on to his left foot and Davy Klaassen, the former Everton midfielder, forced Kelleher into his first save but was offside when heading a left wing cross goalwards.
Klaassen was inches away from connecting with another delivery from the left, from Tadic, and Kelleher tipped over when Noussair Mazraoui took aim for the top corner from almost 30 yards.
Ajax’s increasing threat was not the only concern for Klopp. Andy Robertson received lengthy treatment to his left ankle but was able to continue. Perr Schuurs was shown a yellow card when he upended Mané as the striker attempted to race through.
The Dutch champions may have been polished and inventive in possession but they failed to extend Kelleher as they should have done. Klaassen, unmarked and five yards out, headed wide after a well-worked free-kick released Neres in space down the left. Neres then worked his way into the area but went for glory from a tight angle with two teammates better placed to his right. His shot sailed harmlessly into the side-netting. Minutes later, from a slightly better position, Neres looked certain to open the scoring after Kelleher had impressively tipped away Mazraoui’s low drive at full stretch. This time he struck the post.
But Ajax were responsible for their downfall at both ends of the pitch. The second half flowed end-to-end and Liverpool’s press was far more effective in disrupting the visitors’ composure and stretching their defence. The breakthrough came gift-wrapped, however. Onana completely misread both the flight of the ball and the imminent danger when Neco Williams crossed deep into the Ajax six-yard box.
The Ajax keeper came off his line but let the cross go for a goal-kick. Jones had gambled on such a mistake and, only inches from the byline, volleyed into an unguarded net. Onana produced an excellent save in the closing moments to turn Roberto Firmino’s shot onto the post but there was no redemption for the Cameroon international.