Reds ease past Genk without sparkling
Paul Gorst watches Liverpool get the job done against Genk with thoughts immediately turning to Man City
The brilliant fireworks display might have lit up the Anfield sky all night, but Liverpool served up a performance that was nowhere near as illuminating below it here. Once again, the Reds were on the victorious end of a tense finish as they edged out the limited Genk to crucially wrestle control of Champions League Group E.
It really didn't need to be this difficult for Jurgen Klopp and his players. For the third time in four games, Liverpool sealed a nervy 2-1 triumph that had their fans unsettled for the majority.
These three points will ultimately go a long way towards ensuring another crack at Ol' Big Ears in 2020 as the six-time winners crept ever closer towards qualification to the last 16.
Napoli's 1-1 draw with Red Bull Salzburg in Naples now means Klopp's defending champions move to the summit of their group with the Italians to come next at home.
Victory against Carlo Ancelotti's men on November 27 and the Reds will secure their passage in time to rest key names during a hectic December that, rather farcically, will see them play two games in less than 24 hours in the Carabao Cup and the FIFA Club World Cup in Qatar.
As the pyro rippled through the L4 air, pre-match, Klopp surprised a few by resting much of his own firepower as Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino were named among the substitutes. That duo accounted for two of six changes as Dejan Lovren, Adam Lallana, Andy Robertson and Jordan Henderson also made way.
In came Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Divock Origi with a chance to build on their own explosive exploits against Arsenal last week. For the former, it was an unfamiliar role out in the front three, but with three goals in his last two starts, prior to kick-off - including a brilliant brace against Genk last month - it was a great opportunity to build on those eye-catching displays.
It was a chance he once more grasped with both hands as his match-winning efforts secured a big win in the battle to escape a group that is perhaps proving tougher than many had anticipated.
Klopp was adamant, before the game, that neither he nor his players were thinking about that titanic tussle with Manchester City at Anfield on Sunday, but it was difficult to take that assertion at face value as six changes were made and Henderson was rested through illness - despite his manager's claim that the captain was desperate to play a part.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates after scoring his team's second goal during the UEFA Champions League group E match between Liverpool FC and KRC Genk at Anfield (Image: Photo by Alex Pantling/Getty Images)
After a 4-1 win over the same side less than three weeks ago, Klopp clearly felt another adventurous lineup could put their visitors to the sword in similarly ruthless fashion and the XI selected was bursting with creativity, even without Mane and Firmino.
With both Henderson and Oxlade-Chamberlain among the goals in recent weeks, Gini Wijnaldum was next to remind his manager of his own ability to get on the scoresheet as he reacted quickest from James Milner's low cross to hook into the roof of the net.
Liverpool slowly but surely began to splutter into life towards the half-hour mark and a sharp counter-attack almost ended with Naby Keita's first goal of the season as he was denied twice by goalkeeper Gaetan Coucke after great work from Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Keita then sent Mohamed Salah scampering clear with a superb left-footed pass as the Reds pressed for the second of the game. It could so easily have been a moment to savour for the midfielder as he continues to search for a real liftoff in his Liverpool career. He was much brighter here than against Arsenal last week as he constantly tried to get his team-mates on the front foot with flashes of class.
The £52million man just needs to hold his nerve. He is trying the right things and his willingness to attempt to carve open opposition defences, rather than take a safe option, should be encouraged and applauded. With Klopp's engine room sometimes accused of being too safe, Keita is anything but, even if things don't always go to plan, presently.
Liverpool were made to pay for their lethargy as Ally Samatta headed home a corner to restore parity and Anfield was shocked into life after what had been an otherwise timid 40 minutes. Klopp needs no second invitation to lend so much importance to the word intensity, but there was a distinct lack of it as standards dropped as alarmingly as the atmosphere in the first period.
Origi should have made it 2-1 moments later after latching onto Keita's through ball but the striker could only fire wide. The Belgium international remains a curious case in this Liverpool team. Often a big-game player, the man responsible for many of the Kop's most celebrated moments over the past year is guilty, at times, of filling the spaces in between those iconic goals with ordinary performances.
Klopp had declared Origi as a "Liverpool legend" to Belgian media in his pre-match press conference prior to this game and while his place in Anfield folklore was secured earlier this year, the one-time Genk youth prospect is a class below Mane and Firmino when asked to deputise for them from the start of games.
It was left to Oxlade-Chamberlain to continue his rich vein of scoring form when he met Salah's lovely bit of skill with a swivel and first-time shot to send Coucke despairing with his dive. How the Reds star must love playing this Belgian outfit, it's now three goals in two games against them.
Those dark days in rehabilitation are now just a distant memory for a player who is fast staking his claim to remain rooted in this Liverpool midfield for the long term. It's City up next and with Oxlade-Chamberlain's Anfield history against Pep Guardiola's men, it would be a brave call to relegate that goal threat to the bench for Sunday's showdown.
Oxlade-Chamberlain, along with Keita, was afforded a standing ovation as Andy Robertson and Sadio Mane provided a serious injection of quality off the bench inside the final 20 minutes. It was the visitors who did the pressing in the final moments though as Alisson Becker was forced into a couple of important interventions.
The final whistle was greeted with a big sigh of relief from all around as the colours continued to spread across the evening air. Job done here, but Liverpool will have to significantly step it up when Napoli visit in three weeks time. Qualification will be dangled in their direction if they can.
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