Jürgen Klopp had predicted a wild night and found little pleasure in being proved right. By the end, the victorious Liverpool manager sported a face like thunder while his beaten counterpart, Jesse Marsch, indulged in fist-pump celebrations in front of the Salzburg supporters. At least Mohamed Salah stuck to the script.
The Egypt international struck the 17th and 18th European goals of his Liverpool career as the European champions survived a stirring Salzburg comeback to kickstart the defence of their title. Salah’s first of the night swept Liverpool into a three-goal lead after 36 minutes. Klopp’s warning about the threat and adventure of the Austrian champions appeared the product of an overactive imagination at that stage. Liverpool were dominant, then unhinged by Marsch’s switch to a midfield diamond. Their defence was easily overrun by a visiting attack led with finesse and guile by Hwang Hee-chan. By the hour the lead had gone. Erling Haaland emerged from the bench to draw Salzburg level. Marsch cavorted down the touchline like a young José Mourinho at Old Trafford. Salah’s second restored a sense of European order and Liverpool’s superiority, though not Salzburg’s exuberant post-match celebrations.
Klopp’s introduction of James Milner for Jordan Henderson, and into a more defensive midfield role than the captain, helped Liverpool halt the recovery and the flow of Salzburg attacks. The mature reaction to blowing a three-goal cushion underlined the expertise of a European champion and the final stages passed without trouble. Salzburg’s fightback and the unease it spread throughout the Liverpool defence, however, will have concerned the winning manager.
“It was far away from being a perfect game but it was a typical Liverpool game, very exciting and never over until the final whistle,” said Klopp. “I thought after the final whistle that I was angry but then I realised I wasn’t angry. I respect the performance of the opponent and we did some good things in the game. We can do better and we will do better.”
Liverpool looked confidently on course for a 23rd consecutive home game without defeat in Europe following their first incisive attack. Salzburg’s four-man midfield was prised apart ruthlessly in the opening half hour with the hosts revelling in the space down both flanks. The appearance would prove deceptive but there was no doubting the quality and control of the Liverpool performance as they sauntered into a commanding lead.
Sadio Mané began the scoring when Andy Robertson found him unmarked on the left, a recurring theme, and the striker drifted inside Rasmus Kristensen before exchanging passes with Roberto Firmino. The return ball from the Brazilian was, as usual, perfectly weighted and the former Salzburg player slipped a confident finish past the advancing Cican Stankovic. Mané’s celebrations were restrained against the club where he scored 45 goals in 87 appearances. Not so Robertson’s when he scored for only the second time in a Liverpool shirt. The Scotland captain was the one Liverpool defender to meet his usual standards and rewarded with an excellent goal at the end of a move he instigated. Robertson, like Mane for the opener, drifted inside the Salzburg midfield without resistance. Henderson released Trent Alexander-Arnold and the left-back continued his run to the near post where he met the right-back’s low delivery with a precise side-foot finish. It was his first Liverpool goal since May 2018 and the presence of a left-back inside Salzburg’s six-yard box demonstrated the range of attacking threats unleashed by Klopp.
Liverpool were in the comfort zone when Salah made it three with just over a third of the game gone, converting from close range after Stankovic dealt weakly with Firmino’s close-range header. Too comfortable for their own good, it transpired.
Salzburg had threatened in flashes but unnerved the Liverpool defence and Joe Gomez in particular whenever they broke in numbers. The comeback commenced shortly before the interval when Henderson’s pass was intercepted and Enock Mwepu released the highly impressive Hwang into the area. The striker’s first touch took him away from Gomez, then he cut back inside Virgil van Dijk and beat Adrián with an emphatic finish. Liverpool, and Anfield, grew increasingly edgy.
They squandered several inviting openings before Hwang crossed for the equally impressive Takumi Minamino to steer a fine volley past the Liverpool keeper. Salzburg’s celebrations were enhanced by the introduction of Haaland, the prolific young striker who was left out of the starting lineup due to illness. Three minutes later, to the shock of Klopp and delight of the striker’s father Alfie, looking on, he drew the Austrians level. Hwang and Mwepu combined to release Minamino and his low cross sailed beyond Van Dijk and Gomez. The unmarked Haaland tapped into an empty net.
It fell to Salah to dig Liverpool out of trouble. Dominik Szoboszlai, too hesitant throughout, was beaten to a clearance by Fabinho and Firmino teed up his fellow striker with an intelligent header into the area. Salah exploded on to the opportunity and gave Stankovic no chance with the finish. Liverpool departed relieved and reprieved.