Short but sweet would be Liverpool’s preference for their return to the Europa League and an assured start was made with victory over Lask in Austria. Another comeback was necessary but, that minor inconvenience aside, this was a performance that again demonstrated the options and quality available to Jürgen Klopp.
Victory was Klopp’s 50th in Europe, the most by a Liverpool manager in the club’s illustrious history, and the fifth in succession this season by a team that is developing nicely. And rapidly. Lask took an early lead and played high on adrenaline until confronted by a commanding second-half Liverpool display that brought goals from Darwin Núñez, Luis Díaz and Mohamed Salah. The Austrian side had no answers once Núñez levelled from the penalty spot and an uncertain opening 45 minutes from the visitors in Linz was long forgotten by the time Salah nutmegged the goalkeeper Tobias Lawal for Liverpool’s third.
“I know people expect us to fly through this competition, it will not happen,” said Klopp. “In the group stage it will not happen and in the knockout stage it will not happen. We have to dig in, dig into it. That’s what we did tonight.” On the achievement of his own half-century, the Liverpool manager added: “If I still have 50 after the group stage then even if I have the most wins in Europe as a Liverpool manager everybody will hate that. It’s great, but probably because the competition now has so many more games than in the past.”
Six consecutive seasons of Champions League football, including three appearances in the final, may have made the drop into the Europa League more painful for Liverpool but there was humility in the approach to their first game in the competition since the 2016 final defeat by Sevilla. The Europa League is where “we deserved to be” admitted Virgil van Dijk, while Klopp insisted there would be no complacency from the competition favourites towards what appeared a straightforward group. This a trophy the manager desperately wants to add to his Anfield collection in Dublin next May.
There was a first start for the exciting 17-year-old winger Ben Doak, whose performances at under-21 level for club and country warranted reward, as well as the new signing Ryan Gravenberch. The midfielder Stefan Bajcetic made his first appearance of the season at right-back after his recovery from injury. The amount of changes might have been a risk but each one of Klopp’s selections needed game-time, whether on account of fitness, lack of opportunity or development. There were other contributory factors to a clumsy first-half display that allowed Lask to take the lead from their first attack of note.
A loose touch from Harvey Elliott resulted in Rene Renner delivering a low cross to Robert Zulj, whose shot on the turn was deflected over by Van Dijk. Sascha Horvath floated the subsequent corner over a crowded penalty area towards Florian Flecker, lurking unmarked outside. The right wing-back controlled perfectly and drove an unstoppable shot on the half-volley beyond the despairing dive of Caoimhin Kelleher in the Liverpool goal.
Confidence surged through the home team and it needed a vital block from Van Dijk to prevent Marin Ljubicic doubling Lask’s lead having shrugged off Ibrahima Konaté. Liverpool were struggling to find rhythm with the midfield partnership of Wataru Endo and Gravenberch understandably uncertain on their first appearance together. That said, it took a fine reflex save from Lawal to deny the industrious Núñez an equaliser before the break. The Uruguayan looked certain to score when Van Dijk headed a Kostas Tsimikas corner back across goal but, from point-blank range, Lawal clawed away the striker’s header.
As was the case at Wolves on Saturday, a few half-time tweaks conjured a vast improvement from Liverpool. Klopp’s side were awarded a penalty when a flowing move involving Elliott and Bajcetic set up Díaz in front of goal. As he sliced wide he was felled by a clear foul by the lunging Philipp Ziereis. Núñez stroked a powerful spot-kick past Lawal.
The introduction of Dominik Szoboszlai as part of a triple substitution on the hour injected the accuracy and vision that Liverpool’s passing had lacked. Within three minutes the visitors had turned the game on its head, and in style. Núñez did a fine centre-forward’s job to hold off his marker under pressure and find Elliott. The young midfielder sent Gravenberch sprinting down the right and when his low cross arrived in the penalty area Díaz was on hand to steer an emphatic finish into the roof of the net.
There was no prospect of a Lask recovery and the substitute Salah sealed victory when he received Núñez’s pass inside the box, rode two challenges brilliantly and squeezed a shot through Lawal’s legs.