Lask 1 Liverpool 3
Short but sweet would be Liverpool’s preference for their return to the Europa League and they made an assured start to the campaign with victory over Lask in Austria. Jürgen Klopp’s team required another comeback to claim their fifth successive win of the season and to extend their unbeaten sequence to 17 matches in all competitions. That concerning trait aside, this was a performance that again underlined the quality of options available to Liverpool this season.
Lask took an early lead and played high on adrenaline until a commanding second-half display from Liverpool brought goals from Darwin Núñez, Luis Díaz and Mohamed Salah. The Austrian side had no answers once Núñez had levelled from the penalty spot and an error-strewn opening 45 minutes by the visitors was long forgotten by the time Salah nutmegged the goalkeeper Tobias Lawal for Liverpool’s third.
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. His team selection invited accusations to the contrary, but this is a trophy the manager desperately wants to add to his Anfield collection in Dublin next May.
There was a first Liverpool start for the exciting 17-year-old winger Ben Doak, whose performances at under-21 level for club and country have warranted reward, as well as the new signing Ryan Gravenberch. The midfielder Stefan Bajcetic made his first club appearance of the season at right back after his recovery from injury.
The amount of changes might have been a risk by Klopp but each one of his selections needed gametime, whether on account of fitness, lack of opportunity or development. There were other contributory factors to a clumsy first-half display.
Lask qualified for the Europa League by virtue of a third-place finish in last season’s Austrian Bundesliga plus a playoff victory over Zrinjski Mostar of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Before a boisterous crowd at their new stadium, which officially opened in February, Thomas Sageder’s powerful side defended tirelessly while troubling Liverpool’s defence on the few occasions they broke in numbers. The hosts were also defending an eight-game unbeaten run at home in Europe and made the perfect start when sweeping into the lead from their first genuine attack of note.
A loose touch from Harvey Elliott in midfield resulted in Rene Renner delivering a low cross to Robert Zulj, whose shot on the turn was deflected over by Van Dijk. The subsequent well-worked corner found Liverpool sleeping. Sascha Horvath floated the delivery over a crowded penalty area towards Florian Flecker, who was lurking unmarked outside. The right wing back controlled perfectly and drove an unstoppable shot on the half-volley beyond the despairing dive of Ireland international Caoimhín 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 rusty on their first appearance together.
That said, it took a fine reflex save from Lawal to deny the industrious Núñez an equaliser shortly before the break. The forward looked certain to score when Van Dijk headed a Kostas Tsimikas corner back across goal but, from point-blank range, Lawal managed to claw away his header and then scramble clear at his feet.
As was the case at Wolves on Saturday, a few tweaks during the interval conjured a vast improvement from Liverpool. Klopp’s side were awarded a penalty early in the second half when a flowing move involving Elliott and Bajcetic set up Díaz in front of goal. As Díaz sliced wide he was felled by a clear foul by the lunging Philipp Ziereis. Núñez stroked a powerful spot-kick past Lawal’s dive.
The introduction of Dominik Szoboszlai as part of a triple substitution on the hour immediately injected the accuracy and vision that Liverpool’s passing had previously 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 away 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 secured victory with two minutes of normal time remaining when he received Núñez pass inside the box, rode two challenges and squeezed a shot through the legs of Lawal. – Guardian