Liverpool got what they came for in Austria but their 3-1 win away to LASK came with a warning side of what is ahead for Jurgen Klopp's side in their exile from Europe's big leagues. They may be the overwhelming favorites to win the Europa League but even the most successful of English representatives in this competition tend to find it any almighty slog, a competition that demands much more out of them in practice than on paper. That much was certainly true in Austria, where it took second-half goals from Darwin Nunez, Luis Diaz and a substitute to earn victory for the visitors.
Klopp's first selection in the Europa League since losing the final to Sevilla in 2016 was hardly short on talent even if it bore 11 changes from Saturday's win at Wolves. In addition to the two second-half scorers, summer signing Ryan Gravenberch made his full debut (an impressive if injury-curtailed one at that) and Virgil van Dijk anchored the backline. Still, this was not quite the very best of Liverpool. It is hard to imagine that Mohamed Salah, Alexis Mac Allister and Dominik Szoboszlai will be confined to the substitutes bench when West Ham come to Anfield on Sunday.
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This is so often the case when one of the Premier League's monied elite drop out of the Champions League. Their priority will always be domestic matters even if this season comes with the intriguing twist that the most successful nations in European club competitions will be rewarded with an extra spot in the Champions League. Liverpool aspire to be in the mix at the top of the English game; in the Europa League, they want to be good enough to win but not so good that they deplete their energy levels for Sunday.?
Klopp judged it just about right in Linz but his side were some way from their best performances of this season. Lacking the automatisms that come from a settled XI, there was a little more reliance on star power and individual moments of brilliance that unlocked the LASK defense.
This cobbled-together XI had started brightly, the much-heralded Ben Doak offering plenty of incision from the right flank but found themselves undone by a sucker punch in the 14th minute. It was the sort of elegantly constructed move that only a well-honed unit could deliver. As Sascha Horvath stood over a corner from the right, the gigantic center back Philipp Ziereis placed himself in a prime spot to block Gravenberch's dart to the edge of the box, where the ball had been delivered onto the right foot of Florian Flecker.
So robust was the blocking ahead of him that Flecker had the time to take a touch that put the ball in his stride, swinging the ball low through a mass of bodies. Whether or not Caoimhin Kelleher was unsighted by them did not particularly matter, neither he nor Alisson would have got close to such a thunderous strike.
Equally, neither of those goalkeepers could have been expected to deliver the stunning save that Tobias Lawal offered to Darwin Nunez's header in the 28th minute. Van Dijk flicked a corner from the right into the danger area at the goalkeeper's far post, the Reds' No. 9 seemingly needing to only get his head to the ball to draw his side level. He did exactly that but an instinctive thrust of the glove by Lawal denied the Uruguayan.
Nunez would ultimately equalize in the second half, converting a penalty conceded by Zieris for a clumsy late tackle on Diaz, and he had created more than enough opportunities for himself in open play, barging his way through the LASK defense early in the second half only to see his shot blocked.
Soon after the penalty, Liverpool were ahead, exploiting the right flank that looked to be LASK's weak point all night long. Gravenberch, a purposeful presence driving upfield until he suffered a worrying injury 15 minutes before the end, burst onto a through ball before delivering a precise cross into the path of Diaz, who turned home his third goal of the season.
That looked to be enough for the visitors but it was not until Salah and Szoboszlai were called from the bench did Liverpool show the trickery to tear LASK apart at will. His stabbed finish through the legs of Lawal ended any lingering hope the hosts might have had of beating English opposition for the first time.
Then again, the aim for Klopp in this competition is not to have to use Salah, certainly not at such an early stage of the season. Mikel Arteta and Erik ten Hag might have thought the same about their superstars in years gone by. Welcome to the Europa League, a competition that tends to extract a higher price from its big-name participants than they might expect to pay.