It had been 2,682 days since they last appeared in UEFA’s second-tier competition, appearing in three UEFA Champions League finals and winning one, and the adaptation to the new reality took a while to settle.
The Austrians did not have such a problem in the biggest game in their history, as the visit of Manchester United in 2020, when they were hammered 5-0, took place behind closed doors due to the pandemic.
They were so red-hot that they predictably took the lead early on through a brilliant strike from Florian Flecker, but once Jurgen Klopp realized that the Europa League would be just as tough a task, a familiar trait of this season’s favorites emerged.
Eight minutes into the second half, Darwin Nunez fired home a penalty and Luis Diaz converted from close range and later substitute Mohamed Salah secured Klopp’s 50th European win, the most of any manager at Anfield.
The German insisted ahead of the game that it was not a contest about handing out “opportunities”, but then proceeded to name a completely different side to the one that won at Wolves at the weekend.
I’m not saying it was weak with first-choice centre-backs Virgil van Dijk and Ibrahima Konat at the back and Diaz and Nunez up front, but in between was the untested midfield of latest signing 21-year-old Ryan Gravenberch in his first and Harvey Elliott (20) either side of the 30-year-old ‘veteran Wataru Enda, who has played just 89 minutes for Klopp’s side since his own summer move.
The real excitement was reserved for livewire winger Ben Doak, who at the age of 17 years and 314 days became the club’s fourth-youngest player to play in Europe on his first start.
But while his first real drive in the LASK defense saw him slip past Rene Renner to win a corner, he was short on opportunities due to a dysfunctional midfield that could gain no control in the first half and the young Scot was substituted just after the hour mark.
A misjudgment by Stefano Bajcetić, the 18-year-old midfielder asked to play the right-back role as a Trent Alexander-Arnold hybrid when a cross was missing, led to LASK’s corner and the opening goal.
Flecker was caught on the edge of the penalty area and he took a touch before firing past a crowd of players past Caoimhin Kelleher as movement on the training ground paid off from their first shot on goal.
Liverpool weren’t quite as clinical as Nunez headed home Elliott’s encouraging cross before seeing his close-range header from Van Dijk’s header deflected in by goalkeeper Tobias Lawal for a corner.
The raucous home crowd cheered not only that, but every block, every tackle, every Liverpool corner saved, every corner won.
Liverpool’s first move of any quality produced an equalizer when Diaz was brought down by Philipp Ziereis after Elliott, Doak and Bajcetic had combined from the right and Nunez fired home from the spot in the 56th minute.
It was a signal for Klopp to make changes with summer signings Dominik Szoboszlai and Alexis Mac Allister, two of his new first-choice midfielders, replacing Doak and Endo with Joe Gomez giving Bajcetic a break after his first game since injury in March.
They went ahead when Nunez knocked on Gomez’s pass from deep, laid off Elliott, who sent Gravenberch racing down the right and his low cross was turned home by Diaz.
If life wasn’t difficult enough for the visitors, Mohamed Salah introduced himself in the 76th minute and created two chances and had a shot inside his first 60 seconds before weaving his way through the keeper’s legs two minutes from time.
Liverpool player ratings (4-3-3)
GK: Caoimhin Kelleher – 7/10 – Made some fine saves when LASK countered and Liverpool were under the cosh.
RB: Stefan Bajcetic – 5/10 – Stepped into midfield at times, which suited him more because he did not look comfortable when in wide areas. That said, his low cross led to the foul on Diaz which gave Liverpool the penalty they needed.
CB: Ibrahima Konate – 4/10 – A clear weakness in the Liverpool backline. Too soft with many of his defensive actions on this occasion.
CB: Virgil van Dijk – 7/10 – Kept his composure at the back. Easily Liverpool’s most reliable and stubborn defender.
LB: Kostas Tsimikas – 5/10 – Squandered a couple of chances to start quick breakaways. Crossing was a little hit-and-miss but that’s at least understandable.
DM: Wataru Endo – 6/10 – Swept up well and buzzed about midfield when partnered by Bajcetic. A little limited in possession.
CM: Ryan Gravenberch – 7/10 – Sometimes guilty of holding onto the ball for too long and trying to do too much, but couldn’t fault his effort or desire to get hold of possession. Great assist for Diaz’s goal.
CM: Harvey Elliott – 6/10 – Struggled to stamp his authority on the game when it slowed down but excelled in speeding up the tempo and playing under a bit more pressure.
RW: Ben Doak – 5/10 – The talent and quality is clearly there, but the young winger was only able to show it in short bursts. Muscled out of the game at points.
CF: Darwin Nunez – 8/10 – Threw himself into aerial duels and made himself a nuisance one way or another. Grabbed a deserved goal from the penalty spot and then an assist for Salah.
LW: Luis Diaz – 8/10 – Diaz wasn’t at his electric best but LASK still feared him, ultimately leading to the all-important penalty. Scored with ease himself soon after.
SUB: Alexis Mac Allister (61′ for Endo) – 6/10
SUB: Dominik Szoboszlai (61′ for Doak) – 7/10
SUB: Joe Gomez (61′ for Bajcetic) – 6/10
SUB: Mohamed Salah (74′ for Gravenberch) – 8/10
SUB: Joel Matip (82′ for Konate) – N/A
Subs not used: Alisson (GK), Jaros (GK), Robertson, Quansah, Jones, Jota, Gakpo
Jurgen Klopp – 6/10 – Liverpool got the job done in the end and that’s the most important thing, though they needlessly complicated matters for themselves at times.