Liverpool have reached the top of their Champions League group and joint-top of the Premier League in three games without the cornerstone of their defence but victory over Midtjylland came at a price for Jürgen Klopp. Fabinho, shifted into central defence following Virgil van Dijk’s injury, joined the Netherlands’ captain on the sidelines with a muscle problem and will discover the extent of his lay-off on Wednesday.
A first European night without an Anfield crowd was the drab test of patience that may have been expected but there were individual bonuses for the Liverpool manager. Diogo Jota scored the 10,000th goal in Liverpool’s competitive history, Trent Alexander-Arnold created both Jota’s opener and Mohamed Salah’s 90th minute penalty in an imperious display and young Rhys Williams made his second Champions League appearance as Fabinho’s replacement. But the sight of the Brazilian hobbling off injured in the first half, to join not only Van Dijk but Joël Matip in the treatment room, removed some of the gloss from Klopp’s perspective. His team have responded faultlessly to Van Dijk’s injury in terms of results but resources are being stretched painfully thin at the back.
“It is like a marriage,” the Liverpool manager said. “In good moments and less good moments you have to stick together. We have a lot of games and players are saying goodbye for a while after what seems each one, but we stick together to play the next one and we try to win. That is what we do.”
For the first time in his Liverpool reign Klopp started a Champions League game without any of his established front three. The sight of Salah, Sadio Mané and Roberto Firmino among the substitutes could have been received as a boost or an insult by the Danish champions but that was not the Liverpool manager’s concern. He has the options to rotate in attack, especially with Jota making an impressive start to his Anfield career, and a need to spread the workload in this condensed and intensive season.
There was, fairly predictably, a deterioration in Liverpool’s threat level and understanding in the final third without three world-class forwards on the pitch. Midtjylland’s defensive organisation, however, was chiefly responsible for the limited influence of Jota, Divock Origi and Takumi Minamino.
A relentless, aggressive start from the visitors was another departure from their Champions League group opener against Atalanta last week, when they did not commit a foul inside the first 40 minutes and found themselves 3-0 down at half-time. There was no doubting Midtjylland’s motivation to make amends at Anfield. Goalkeeper Mikkel Andersen, making his first start of the season with Jesper Hansen injured, had only to collect a routine cross in the opening minute for his teammates and bench to roar their approval.
They should have had much more to scream about moments later when a long ball out of defence by Alexander Scholz sent Anders Dreyer sprinting through the centre of a nonexistent Liverpool defence. The ball sat up nicely for a first time shot but Dreyer, played onside by Andy Robertson, took the wrong option of controlling with his chest and reducing the angle. Alisson stood up tall and saved the forward’s low shot with his legs.
The visitors continued to swarm over Liverpool in the early exchanges but Klopp’s side began to exhaust the threat and their opponents’ energy by controlling possession and switching play at every opportunity. Alexander-Arnold provided Liverpool’s most potent threat with a series of pinpoint crosses but Minamino was unable to capitalise. The Japan international completely missed one delivery across the face of goal and steered another well wide with a tame header. Minamino had another chance when found in space inside the penalty by Jordan Henderson but a loose first touch allowed defender Erik Sviatchenko to cut out the danger.
Midtjylland had three players booked before the interval. The last of them, for Jens-Lys Cajuste’s lunge on Henderson, sparked a furious outburst from Klopp towards the Danish bench. His patience had already snapped after seeing Fabinho depart injured the 30th minute. “It is a muscle injury and we will have to wait,” said Klopp. Henderson was able to continue before being replaced by Georginio Wijnaldum during the interval. “That was always the plan to give them both 45 minutes,” he added.
Liverpool controlled proceedings from the restart, and the Netherlands international introduced himself in an expertly worked breakthrough that left the Midtjylland head coach, Brian Priske, smacking himself in the face with his notebook. Wijnaldum sprayed the ball out to Alexander-Arnold who passed inside to Xherdan Shaqiri and immediately darted into space inside the visitors’ penalty area. Shaqiri returned the pass to perfection, piercing the Danish defence, and Alexander-Arnold squared across goal for Jota to apply a simple finish for his second goal in successive games at Anfield.
Salah and Mané replaced the ineffective Minamino and Origi and Salah was clipped for a clear penalty by Paulinho when racing on to Alexander-Arnold’s through ball in the final minute. The Egypt international converted the spot-kick emphatically as Midtjylland, who squandered a fine chance to level seconds earlier through Dreyer, were given another reminder of the punishment that exists at the very top.