The first competitive meeting between two of Britain’s most successful clubs captured the imagination, drew Steven Gerrard back to his beloved Anfield and even lured Sir Alex Ferguson into enemy territory. It proved an occasion only on paper. The gulf between Liverpool and Rangers in terms of Champions League experience, revenue and quality was reflected on the pitch where Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s team were thoroughly outclassed.
Jürgen Klopp’s 60th Champions League game as Liverpool manager – qualifiers excluded – was just the elixir his team required in their quest for confidence and defensive solidity. Trent Alexander-Arnold reminded Gareth Southgate of the attacking prowess that the England manager may decide to go without at the World Cup with a stunning free-kick. Mohamed Salah added a second from the penalty spot. Limiting the defeat to two was Rangers’ finest achievement on a night when they were indebted to the enduring excellence of goalkeeper Allan McGregor.
Van Bronckhorst’s side did not seriously threaten Alisson’s goal until the 85th minute when the substitute Rabbi Matondo had a shot hooked off the line by Kostas Tsimikas. The away supporters’ renditions of God Save the King caused more consternation among the home crowd than anything their players produced on the pitch. Rangers were meek in the extreme and remain both pointless and goalless on their return to the Champions League stage.
There was rehabilitation of sorts for Darwin Núñez, however. Klopp had taken the Liverpool striker aside at training on Sunday and told the Uruguay international not to worry about the difficult introduction to his Anfield 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, revelling in the space between Rangers’ three central defenders and centre 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 McGregor’s goal after merely two minutes. A snapshot from Jota’s touch was straight at the veteran goalkeeper.
Moments later Núñez was fouled outside the area by the 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 release from recent criticism when the Brighton goalkeeper, Robert Sánchez, saved his late free-kick from a similar position on Saturday. He would not be thwarted again.
Alexander-Arnold’s intentions were clear as he lined up the set piece but McGregor, arguably leaving too much room to his right, 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, savoured a timely demonstration 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. 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 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 Díaz and Jota.
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 quality in possession to stem the tide. Any concern Klopp harboured over the interval scoreline – and they must have been fleeting 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 18-year-old 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 an 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 display deserved a goal, his confidence could have done with one too, but he had to make do with a warm ovation from all four sides of the stadium when replaced late on. Rangers desperately need a response of their own at Ibrox next Wednesday.