The first competitive fixture between two of Britain’s most successful clubs captured the imagination, drew Steven Gerrard back to his beloved club and even attracted Sir Alex Ferguson back to enemy territory. But the contest did not live up to the billing. Liverpool strolled to victory over a Rangers team that are without a point or a goal on their return to the Champions League stage, and were outclassed throughout at Anfield.
Jürgen Klopp’s 60th Champions League game as Liverpool manager – qualifiers excluded – was just the elixir required as Trent Alexander-Arnold gave Gareth Southgate a reminder of his attacking prowess with a stunning free-kick before Mohamed Salah added a second from the penalty spot.
Rangers did not threaten Alisson’s goal until the 85th minute when substitute Rabbi Matondo had a shot hooked off the line by Kostas Tsimikas. The away supporters’ chants of God Save the King caused more consternation among the home crowd than anything their players produced on the pitch.
Klopp took Darwin Núñez aside at training on Sunday and told the Uruguay international not to worry about the difficult introduction to his Liverpool career. He backed up that reassuring message by handing the 23-year-old only a third start of the season, and as the focal point of a formation that was even more attack-minded than usual.
“If we can help the boys with a way to defend differently we will do that,” the Liverpool manager said at his pre-match press conference. The answer was to dispense with Liverpool’s customary three-man midfield and load the attacking third with Salah, Diogo Jota and Luis Díaz all working off Núñez, whose movement and work rate across the frontline impressed from the off. Jota, reveling in the space between Rangers’ three central defenders and center midfield, was also integral to Liverpool’s complete first-half dominance.
It made perfect sense to reintroduce Núñez against a team that, after the opening two matches, had the joint-worst defensive record in the Champions League. The £64m summer signing caught his first sight of Allan McGregor’s goal after merely two minutes. A snapshot from Jota’s touch was straight at the veteran goalkeeper.
Moments later Núñez was fouled on the edge of the D by former Liverpool defender Ben Davies, who never played for the club prior to his £4m move north of the border this summer. It was prime territory for Alexander-Arnold. The Liverpool right-back was denied a much-needed release from recent criticism when Brighton goalkeeper Robert Sánchez tipped away his late free-kick from a similar position on Saturday. He would not be warned again. Alexander-Arnold’s intentions were clear as he lined up the set piece but McGregor, arguably leaving too much room to his right from him, was powerless to prevent a brilliant free-kick curling just inside the top corner. Alexander-Arnold, Klopp, everyone of a Liverpool persuasion inside Anfield in fact, savored a timely reminder of what the defender contributes as an attacking force. But that has never been in question.
Salah was close to doubling Liverpool’s lead after being released down the right by a lovely first-time flick from Núñez. With space to attack Borna Barisic the forward curled a low effort towards the far bottom corner but McGregor intervened with a fine save. The 40-year-old also denied Núñez three times before the first half was out: at close range after Jordan Henderson had floated a delightful ball over the Rangers’ defence, with his legs when Salah threaded a fine pass into the area and from distance following a flowing move involving a Diaz backheel and a Jota pass.
Rangers offered next to nothing as an attacking threat. Their opponents have been vulnerable defensively all season yet were rarely tested on that score with Alfredo Morelos, preferred to leading goalscorer Antonio Colak, isolated by a Rangers’ midfield that lacked the legs and the ability in possession to stem the one-way flow of the I answered.
The visitors’ only opportunity of the first half came from a free-kick that James Tavernier drove into the wall. Ryan Kent, another former Liverpool player on display, blazed the rebound high into the Kop. Rangers’ finest achievement of the opening 45 minutes was restricting the score to 1-0, mainly thanks to McGregor.
Any concerns that Klopp harbored over the interval scoreline – and they must have been floating at best – disappeared early in the second half when Díaz burst into the area between John Lundstram and Leon King. The Colombia international was tripped by the teenage defender for a clear penalty. Salah swept the resulting spot-kick down the middle of the goal as McGregor dived to his left.
McGregor produced another excellent save to tip away a Jota shot that was destined for the top corner and Joël Matip headed a good chance wide from a Tsimikas corner. Núñez’s display deserved a goal, his confidence in him could have done with one too, but he had to make do with a warm ovation from all four sides of Anfield when substituted in the 80th minute.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism