Liverpool front three ride to the rescue of an unsure defence
Mohamed Salah finally secured a thrilling 4-3 victory with his second of the night at Anfield after the holders had let an early 3-0 lead slip to the free-scoring Austrian champions.
However, the Egyptian’s strike partners were just as impressive as Sadio Mane opened the scoring against his former club and Roberto Firmino played a huge part in three of Liverpool’s four goals.
“It was far away from being a perfect game, but it was a typical Liverpool game, very exciting,” surmised the Reds’ manager Jurgen Klopp.
There was plenty to concern Klopp, who insisted the whole world now knows what he already did — that aside crowned champions of Europe in June and on a 16-match winning streak in the Premier League remains a work in progress.
Salzburg has scored 51 goals this season and while few teams may match the fearless attacking prowess of Jesse Marsch’s young side, Liverpool’s defensive frailties were too easily exposed.
Joe Gomez endured a torrid night deputising for the injured Joel Matip, stand-in goalkeeper Adrian nearly had another horror moment as an attempted pass out from the back was charged down, and even the normally flawless Virgil van Dijk was left floundering on the floor by Hwang Hee-Chan for Salzburg’s first goal.
“Everyone wants to panic and stress and maybe look for all the negatives but we shouldn’t,” said Van Dijk.
“There’s no reason for panic at all, we just need to relax, have a look at what can be better.”
Klopp will hope to have Brazilian number one Alisson Becker and Matip back for the rest of the group stages to restore the solidity to a defence that kept five clean sheets in six Champions League games at Anfield last season.
But with their team in need, after a 2-0 defeat to Napoli on matchday one, the ever-reliable trio of Salah, Mane and Firmino stepped forward to ensure a nervy night for the hosts did not turn into a nightmare.
Mane made his name in European football at Salzburg and did not celebrate his goal in front of the travelling fans, but that was the only sign of grace he showed his former employers.
The opener owed just as much to Firmino’s cushioned pass into the Senegalese’s path and after Andy Robertson finished off a flowing move to make it 2-0, all of the front three combined seemingly to kill the game off.
Mane’s cross was headed goalwards by Firmino and after Cican Stankovic parried his effort, Salah gratefully slotted home the rebound.
“That was some of the best football we played so far (this season),” added Klopp on Liverpool’s opening blitz.
Perhaps even more impressively, Liverpool steadied themselves with half an hour to go when all the momentum was in Salzburg’s favour.
Salah’s speed of movement and thought to anticipate a headed knockdown from Firmino put him through on goal and he smashed past Stankovic to Anfield’s relief.
“It’s a little bit tough because the human mind thinks a little bit ‘OK, we’re going to win and score again and again,'” said Salah of how Liverpool lost control.
“When we were winning 3-0 we needed to score a fourth and fifth and number six also.”
Liverpool have yet to lose a two-legged European tie under Klopp, reaching three finals in the past four seasons.
Should they sort their defensive issues out to see off Napoli and Salzburg for a place in the last 16, the holders will back their firepower to take them all the way again to Istanbul next May.