Liverpool’s intent to wrap up their Champions League group with a club record 15 points was evident the moment Jürgen Klopp submitted his teamsheet. Best-laid plans cannot legislate for the damage still being inflicted on the game by VAR, however.
Takumi Minamino had an 89th-minute winner – that would have delivered Liverpool their 15 points – disallowed by VAR for an apparent handball by Sadio Mané. Not clear, not obvious, and certainly not offside as the goal was initially ruled out for. Midtjylland also equalised from the penalty spot after VAR correctly ruled that Caoimhín Kelleher had fouled Anders Dreyer, but only after the midfielder had been adjudged offside before they connected.
Klopp named a surprisingly strong side – considering his regular complaints about the punishing fixture schedule and the dead rubber offering opportunity to rest senior players – but it was vindicated inside a minute by Salah giving Liverpool the lead. The Egypt international and Trent Alexander-Arnold were more in need of game time than rest, their manager reasoned, having been sidelined recently by Covid-19 and injury respectively.
Alexander-Arnold’s first start for a month was enhanced by wearing the captain’s armband for the first time in his remarkable Liverpool career. Fabinho and Diogo Jota were other familiar faces in the starting lineup although, at an average of 24 years and 26 days, it was still the youngest that Liverpool have fielded in a Champions League game.
The quickest goal in the club’s Champions League history followed after merely 55 seconds. Midtjylland midfielder Alexander Scholz inadvertently provided the assist with a wayward backpass intended for his captain, central defender Erik Sviatchenko. He released the ever-alert Salah through on goal instead.
The Liverpool forward never appeared to have the ball under control as he bore down on Jesper Hansen’s goal but, as the goalkeeper and defender Dion Cools closed in, he poked a shot that trickled through Hansen’s legs and over the line. It was Salah’s 22nd Champions League goal for Liverpool, making him the club’s leading goalscorer in the competition on a night of notable achievements.
Another was the Champions League debut of Leighton Clarkson, the 19-year-old from Clitheroe who Klopp described as one of the brightest talents in the academy before kick-off. The midfielder, flanked by Naby Keïta and Minamino, looked polished from the outset and was involved when Jota almost doubled the visitors’ lead. Clarkson found Minamino in space on the right with a finely weighted pass, one of many he played on the night. The Japan international centred low for Jota to connect but Hansen saved well at close range.
The Midtjylland keeper denied Jota again shortly before the interval and produced a routine save from Keïta following good work by Alexander-Arnold. He should have been extended by Divock Origi too when Salah’s first-time pass released the striker inside the penalty area but, perhaps unaware of how much time he had, the Belgium international dragged an instinctive shot wastefully wide. Not that Liverpool dominated the play or the chances. Far from it.
Fabinho reprised his goal-line intervention away at Ajax with another important clearance when Sory Kaba headed beyond Kelleher at the back post. The Brazilian volleyed off the line with the keeper beaten. Kelleher saved at his near post when another inviting cross from Cools found Awer Mabil unmarked in the area.
Klopp replaced Fabinho at half-time with Billy Koumetio who, at 18 years and 25 days, became the youngest player to appear in the Champions League for Liverpool. The switch left the visitors with a young, inexperienced central defence and the Danish champions immediately capitalised on the opportunity that presented.
Evander hit the Liverpool crossbar from close range after Koumetio was unable to head clear in a crowded penalty area. Kaba headed wide when unmarked at the back post and VAR made its first intervention to award Midtjylland a contested penalty, contested as Dreyer was initially flagged offside when he latched on to a ball over the Liverpool defence before being tripped by the onrushing Kelleher. French referee François Letexier was advised to review the contact – but not the offside – on the pitchside monitor and had no hesitation in overturning the original decision to point to the spot. Kelleher went the right way but was beaten by Scholz’s powerful and precise spot-kick.
Scholz then thought he had given Midtjylland the lead from a tight angle but, after a lengthy VAR review, the effort was disallowed for offside. With four minutes remaining Kelleher pushed away a goalbound Sviatchenko header after the captain towered over Jota at a corner.
Evander could have won it when the hosts broke in numbers following a mistake by Clarkson but was thwarted by a superb challenge by substitute Jordan Henderson inside the area.
Minamino should have won it in the final minute when, after Sadio Mané’s header had struck Cools, the midfielder converted the loose ball from close range. Minamino was not offside but VAR once again perplexed by ruling that Mané, a late substitute for Jota, had headed Henderson’s cross against his own hand. Klopp looked on bewildered, as well he might.