Liverpool talking points from Ian Doyle following the 2-1 Champions League victory over Ajax at Anfield.
Matip worth the wait
He would almost certainly never admit it publicly. But if there was one player who had more right than most to feel a little miffed at being overlooked for the Champions League final in May, it was Joel Matip.
The centre-back was a mainstay of the Premier League campaign alongside Virgil van Dijk but, from the knockout stages onwards, was gradually edged out of the team in Europe, replaced instead by Ibrahima Konate.
But with the Frenchman still sidelined by a knee injury and Joe Gomez suffering the scars of last week’s first-half horror show at Napoli, Matip was back for his first start since the Premier League opener at Fulham.
The Cameroonian grasped the opportunity. Matip had at least offered greater composure when introduced after the break in Italy, and that was again evident here, a calming and decisive influence when Ajax looked to counter.
It helped Van Dijk have his best game of the campaign, the Dutchman solid against his compatriots and a constant threat at set-pieces.
However, it was Matip whose overall performance merited the decisive moment that saw him meet a corner from the busy Kostas Tsimikas in the 89th minute and power a header that crossed the line before Dusan Tadic cleared.
Matip’s first goal in the Champions League since netting for Schalke against Basel in December 2013, it, like the centre-back’s commanding display, was worth the wait.
The sight of the number six on the electronic board of the fourth official caused hearts to sink the last time Thiago Alcantara started a Liverpool match.
This time, however, it prompted a huge ovation for the Spaniard who marked his return to the Reds XI after more than a month on the sidelines with a typically consummate performance.
Of all the players Jurgen Klopp has had to do without during an injury-hampered opening to the season, Thiago has perhaps been the most sorely missed, particularly given the lengthy absences elsewhere in midfield.
That became clear during his encouraging cameo from the bench in Italy last week, one of few Liverpool players to emerge with any credit.
And Thiago signalled his intent in the opening moments against Ajax, losing a marker with a drop of the shoulder and shifting the pattern of play.
Such impetus and passing range allowed the Reds to stretch the game and push the visiting defence into places they didn’t want to be, particularly during the first half in which their high-octane pressing – triggered by the busy Thiago – was a source of encouragement.
The Spaniard dropped into a midfield two for the final quarter and offered assistance to Fabinho without missing a beat. As if it weren’t already obvious, keeping Thiago fit will be key to Liverpool progressing this season.
Jota shows the way
Liverpool’s gamebreaker is back. And even when not finding the target himself, Diogo Jota retains the happy knack of helping open the floodgates.
The Portuguese reacted quickest in the 17th minute to a knockdown from Luis Diaz before feeding Mohamed Salah to net the Reds’ first goal.
It showed what Liverpool had been missing this campaign, Jota making his first start having been absent for almost two months with a hamstring problem.
He provided an injection of energy down the centre of the Reds’ attack, not least with his pressing, and his single-minded willingness to press forward created another chance for Salah and later saw him flash a shot wide from range.
Compared to Roberto Firmino, there is much less subtlety to Jota’s game. That, though, is what Liverpool require right now.
His race understandably run midway through the second half, Jota was replaced by Darwin Nunez, the Uruguayan having netted the goal for Benfica that knocked Ajax out of the Champions League last season and set up his personal showcase against Liverpool.
And with Jota back, Klopp has more scope in giving Nunez the time he needs to continue adjusting to life at Anfield.