There was no escaping the shadow across Anfield during the most subdued European night of Jurgen Klopp’s reign. The accusation for the last few days is Liverpool have taken residence in Pep Guardiola’s head. Here was 90 minutes of compelling evidence that Manchester City were as much on Liverpool and The Kop’s mind as Genk.
Everything Jurgen Klopp said prior to this victory suggested there would be no complacency; no thinking ahead to this weekend’s epic; no thinking of tomorrow when today could come along and kick you on the backside.
Everything around this fixture screamed the opposite. The team selection was the great giveaway, Klopp including a couple of players who can pencil in a trip to Villa Park rather than Qatar this December.
Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Andy Robertson started on the bench before having to be called up to ease their side to a 2-1 win. Jordan Henderson was not even a substitute, although he is ill.
Liverpool won and top their group, so no damage was done. Their ambition of making December less strenuous by arriving in the Champions League knockout stage with a game to spare remains on target. They will be there if they defeat Napoli at Anfield in the next fixture. They also know they will not achieve it if the evening is anything like this. It is unlikely any more this season will be.
This was a European night where the fireworks were most definitely outside the stadium, Genk narrowly beaten with a limp rather than confident stride.
“The most important thing is we won and nobody is injured,” was Klopp’s accurate summing up. “Job done is the headline of the game.”
It was a peculiar match, where the stakes were as great as ever, yet it never felt that way. The sense victory was inevitable can often be impressive. In this case it created unease and almost cost the European champions.
Few would have anticipated how influential Virgil Van Dijk and Alisson would be to secure the victory, especially when Gini Wijnaldum gave Liverpool an early lead and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain struck what proved the winner at the start of the second half.
From the moment the team sheet was published it smacked of trying to win with something to spare. Regardless of the calibre of opponents, that is a dangerous game at any level, although such is Liverpool’s general quality for the first 41 minutes there appeared little sense of jeopardy.
Genk’s limitations were obvious when Liverpool dominated possession, even if a crowd which was sparing its vocal chords for Sunday chose to await its moments to applaud rather than consider any need to be the inspiration.
When Wijnaldum nudged Liverpool ahead with the first meaningful attack on 14 minutes, confidence did not look misplaced. James Milner, playing as a left back, sent in an okay cross which was poorly dealt with by the Belgian defence, and Wijnaldum was able to poke it in from close range.
So far, so predictable. Such was the visitors’ fragility at the back, it seemed any increase in tempo would yield more success – except Liverpool were not playing with usual intensity, nor risking any 50-50 challenges that might have led to a player settling for watching brief on Sunday. Instead, the game meandered into what appeared an exercise in restoring the confidence of Mohamed Salah.
Such has been Liverpool’s winning streak, and Mane’s brilliance, it has gone somewhat unnoticed that the Egyptian has been struggling. It is just the small details, as the managers like to point out, but they can be transformed into a greater concern; a misplaced pass here and there and the occasional hesitation before trying to dribble past a full-back when 18 months ago he would have been through on goal before the defender could consider a challenge.
Salah had numerous opportunities which underlined his struggles, striking wide a couple of times in the first half, lamely at keeper Gaetan Coucke in the second. His habit of failing to spot and pass to team-mates in better goalscoring positions lingers, too.
By then, Liverpool had worked themselves into difficulty. Genk equalised with their first attempt, a Kop end corner headed past Alisson by Ally Samatta on 41 minutes.
Their coach Felice Mazzu had promised his players were not here to collect photographs. Now they possessed a more worthy souvenir, Genk’s confidence visibly growing as the home challenge was not as formidable as they had anticipated. “We go home with a good feeling,” said Mazzu.
As the first hint of restlessness grew, Oxlade-Chamberlain restored Liverpool’s advantage with a clever turn and strike from just inside the penalty area. It was his fourth in his last four appearances.
When Liverpool were connecting, the Belgians could not cope. If the problem in the first half was a lack of aggression, in the second it was over-elaboration – Liverpool often prone to the backheel in the penalty area when a shot on target will suffice.
Naby Keita was again subbed leaving everyone wanting more, the Guinea midfielder guilty of slowing the play to pick his passes rather than providing the dynamism needed.
Alisson’s shoving aside of Bryan Heynen’s 80th minute drive proved was the closest the Belgians came as they ended the game with more belief than which they had begun.
Liverpool just about saw it through. Klopp will be the first to admit it was not the performance of European champions. It felt like a compromise to maximise the chances of taking a significant step towards being Premier League ones.
Match details and marks
Liverpool Alisson 7; Alexander-Arnold 6, Gomez 6, Van Dijk 7, Milner 6; Wijnaldum 7, Fabinho 7, Keita 5; Oxlade-Chamberlain 7, Origi 6, Salah 5.
Subs Robertson for Keita (73); Mane for Oxlade-Chamberlain (73); Firmino for Origi (89); Subs not used Adrian, Lallana, Jones, Lovren
KRC Genk Couke 6; Cuesta 6, Dewaest 5, Lucumi 5, De Norre 6; Hrosovsky 6, Maehle 6; Berge 6, Ito 6, Heynen 6; Samatta 7
Subs Ndongala for Ito (68); Onauchu for De Norre (84) Bongonda for Hrosovsky (84); Subs not used Vandevoort, Wouters, Piottrowski, Hagi. Booked Lucemi, De Norre.