Liverpool took time adjusting to life back in the Europa League but for the fourth time in six matches this season they came from behind to win 3-1 against LASK in Linz.
It had been 2,682 days since they last appeared in UEFA’s second-tier competition, having played in three Champions League finals and won one, and that adaptation to a new reality took a while to bed in.
The Austrians had no such problem in the biggest game in their history as the visit of Manchester United in 2020, when they were hammed 5-0, happened behind closed doors because of the pandemic.
They were so fired up they predictably took an early lead through Florian Flecker’s brilliantly-taken goal but once Jurgen Klopp’s side came to the realisation the Europa League will be just as tough a task as the competition favourites this season’s familiar trait emerged.
Within the space of eight second-half minutes Darwin Nunez fired home a penalty and Luis Diaz converted from close range and late on substitute Mohamed Salah clinched Klopp’s 50th European victory, the most of any Anfield manager.
Pre-match the German had insisted this was not a competition for handing out “opportunities” but then proceeded to name a completely different side from that which won at Wolves at the weekend.
Not to say that it was weak with first-choice centre-backs Virgil van Dijk and Ibrahima Konate at the back and Diaz and Nunez up front but in between was the untried midfield of newest signing 21-year-old Ryan Gravenberch, on his first start, and Harvey Elliott (20) either side of the 30-year-old ‘veteran’ Wataru Endo who had played just 89 minutes for Klopp’s team since his own summer move.
The real excitement was reserved for livewire winger Ben Doak, who became the club’s fourth-youngest player to play in Europe at the age of 17 years and 314 days on his first start.
But while his first real run at the LASK defence saw him glide past Rene Renner to win a corner he was starved of opportunities by a malfunctioning midfield which could not gain any control in the first half and the young Scot was replaced just past the hour.
Stefan Bajcetic’s misjudgement, the 18-year-old midfielder asked to play the Trent Alexander-Arnold hybrid right-back role, in missing a cross led to a LASK corner and the opening goal.
Flecker was picked out on the edge of the penalty area and he took a touch before drilling a shot through a crowd of players past Caoimhin Kelleher as a training-ground move paid off from their first shot on target.
Liverpool were not so clinical as Nunez headed over an inviting Elliott cross before seeing his close-range nod towards goal from Van Dijk’s header at a corner clawed out by goalkeeper Tobias Lawal.
The raucous home crowd cheered not only that but every block, every tackle, every Liverpool corner repelled, every corner won.
Liverpool’s first move of any quality brought the equaliser when Diaz was brought down by Philipp Ziereis, after Elliott, Doak and Bajcetic had combined down the right, and Nunez powered home from the spot in the 56th minute.
It was the signal for Klopp to make changes with summer signings Dominik Szoboszlai and Alexis Mac Allister, two of his new first-choice midfield, replacing Doak and Endo with Joe Gomez giving Bajcetic a break after his first game since March after injury.
They went ahead when Nunez brought down Gomez’s pass from deep, laid off to Elliott who sent Gravenberch racing down the right and his low cross was turned home by Diaz.
If life was not difficult enough for the hosts Mohamed Salah was introduced in the 76th minute and created two chances and had a shot inside his first 60 seconds before weaving himself into a position to poke through the legs of the goalkeeper two minutes from time.