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Liverpool handed December fixture boost as Champions League snub solved

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Liverpool handed December fixture boost as Champions League snub solved

Cody Gakpo, Conor Bradley and Luke Chambers were some of the biggest winners from Liverpool’s 4-0 defeat of Lask Linz in the Europa League

Pleasingly for Jurgen Klopp, Liverpool’s final Europa League home tie of their Group E campaign was one of minimal fuss as goals from Mohamed Salah, Cody Gakpo and Luis Diaz helped the Reds to a 4-0 victory over Lask Linz of Austria.

The German made nine changes in total for the penultimate European clash of 2023 and in doing so was still able to see his side secure top spot after Toulouse and Union Saint Gilloise played out a goalless draw in France.

Thursday won’t be a night that lives long in the memory of Klopp or indeed many of those in attendance, but there was enough for the Reds boss to be pleased with ahead of an action-packed December schedule. Here, the ECHO takes a look at both the good and bad from Thursday night’s tie.

The 4-0 thrashing of Lask Linz at Anfield was arguably overshadowed by events at the Stadium de Toulouse on Thursday evening, where Toulouse’s failure to land a knockout blow on Union Saint-Gilloise led to Liverpool being crowned winners of Group E.

Pleasingly for Jurgen Klopp, his side have avoided the dreaded play-off round and will instead head straight for a place in the last 16 of the Europa League.

In doing so, the Reds will be spared the potential of meeting one of eight Champions League drop-outs in a two-legged, mid-February encounter.

Such news will be welcome dearly on Merseyside, with Liverpool on course to play nine times in 29 days between Fulham’s visit to Anfield on Sunday and that of Newcastle United on New Year’s Day.

But with only seven games currently scheduled in February, the opportunity for Klopp and Co to temporarily put their Dublin dreams on hold until the business end of the season will surely aid their pursuit of delivering further silverware to Anfield.

Cody Gakpo

Cody Gakpo would be the first to admit that his campaign has raised more questions than answers.

After enjoying an explosive start to life on Merseyside in the early months of 2023 after completing a £37m move to Liverpool, this season is yet to bear the same fruits for the Dutchman.

Such misfortune, it must be said, has largely been out of Gakpo’s control with a string of performances this term coming in his unfavoured central midfield role with Klopp still looking for long-term solutions in that area of the pitch.

Even when deployed in his favoured centre-forward position in September’s defeat to Tottenham, a first-half equaliser proved to be his last involvement after sustaining a leg injury.

At Anfield on Thursday night, though, Liverpool’s No.18 operated with a restored swagger as he linked up with Luis Diaz and Mohamed Salah to his left and right, buoyed with the confidence of a sweetly-taken goal after just 12 minutes.

Completing just his second 90 minutes of the season in fact, Gakpo rounded off the scoring in added time when he arrowed Trent Alexander-Arnold’s delicate through-ball into the far corner.

In stretching the opposition line all night long, it was a performance that resembled some of Gakpo’s better work at Anfield in the early months of 2023 as he kick-started the Reds’ late-season push for a Champions League place.

Now, competing for a starting place against the likes of Diaz and Darwin Nunez, an energy-zapping December schedule will ensure the Dutchman has ample opportunity to kick-start his campaign.

No Youth League, No problem

In missing out on Champions League qualification for the first time in six years, it wasn’t just the Liverpool first team that was made to deal with the consequences.

Back at the Reds’ AXA Training Centre, Barry Lewtas and Liverpool’s under-19s were dealt equally as damaging a blow as the failure of their first-team peers meant there would be no UEFA Youth League football on Merseyside for the 2023/24 season.

For a competition that has been imperative in the development of Jarell Quansah, Kaide Gordon, Ben Doak, Curtis Jones and many more in recent seasons, the idea of the Reds’ next generation being unable to pit their wits against some of the continent’s finest footballing institutions would have been a damaging one.

That, though, has not been lost on Jurgen Klopp who has still afforded vital minutes and experiences to members of the academy throughout this Europa League group stage campaign and that was no different at Anfield on Thursday night.

In the end, it was Conor Bradley, Chambers and Quansah who had some involvement in the 4-0 thrashing of LASK Linz, while Gordon was named on the substitutes’ bench for the second European game in a row.

If Trent Alexander-Arnold’s and Jones’ combined appearances of 396 under Klopp don’t underline his trust in youth, then his willingness to blood the next generation of Reds in this Europa League campaign sure has.

Frustration

Lack of cutting edge?

It goes without saying that it is nearly impossible to be frustrated with any areas of Liverpool’s performance on Thursday night, with three different scorers at one end of the field and Caoimhin Kelleher earning his first clean sheet of the season at the other.
If there was to be one area that Liverpool might look back on with a touch of regret, then it would be their performance in the final third on a night where they really did spare the blushes of their Austrian counterparts.

Perhaps Cody Gakpo’s best embodied such frustration upon scoring as he thumped the air emphatically after firing home Trent Alexander-Arnold’s eye-of-the-needle pass. On another night, the Reds forward could, and perhaps should, have been taking the match ball home.

In the first half, Gakpo, after an excellent exchange between Ryan Gravenberch and Harvey Elliott, steadied himself with just the goalkeeper to beat before shanking his effort high and wide into the Anfield Road End. Shortly after, Mohamed Salah would release two tame efforts in the direction of Lask stopper Tobias Lawal as the Reds failed to find a third.

In the end, though, four goals from an xG of 3.36 will mark an impressive night’s work for Luis Diaz, Salah, Gakpo Co, but sterner tests await Jurgen Klopp’s side this season where such mercy can’t be spared.

Tougher tests await

It has, by all means, been a relatively straightforward Europa League group stage for Liverpool, with their Champions League-like muscles being flexed throughout.

At Anfield, maximum wins at this stage represents a good season’s work for the Reds. Sadly, though, the best is yet to come as the best of the rest in the Champions League sweep into the Europa League knockout stages and inevitably lock horns with the Reds at some stage.

As fun as Toulouse, Union Saint Gilloise and Lask have all been, if Liverpool are to add a fourth UEFA Cup to the Anfield showroom then the tests in 2024 will come much harder than the aforementioned trio.

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