Liverpool finally laid one of the Champions League’s more bizarre statistical shortcomings to rest, but it was the performance of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain that will have most pleased manager Jurgen Klopp. The England international midfielder set the tone for his team’s first away Champions League group win since 2017 when he put his side in front after 110 seconds.
But it was his overall display — his sharpness, stamina and durability, along with his two goals — that will have mattered to Klopp, who has seen the former Arsenal man plagued by injury for the past 18 months. With Klopp’s side currently toiling slightly to rediscover their majestic early-season form, the possibility of having Oxlade-Chamberlain fully fit and available must delight the German.
And if Klopp required a preview of what that could mean to his squad, Oxlade-Chamberlain provided it inside the opening two minutes after Fabinho’s short, sharp pass. The Englishman capitalised on some poor closing down from the hosts and unleashed an unstoppable right-footed finish into the bottom left-hand corner of the goal from over 20 yards out.
But if the early opening goal was supposed to ensure Liverpool enjoyed a comfortable evening in their quest for a first away group-stage victory since a 7-0 thrashing of Maribor two years and one week ago, Klopp’s defence had other ideas.
It was an alarming defensive display from the reigning kings of Europe, the sort of performance that Klopp had apparently consigned to the rubbish bin of history since Virgil van Dijk arrived at the club.
There were warning signs two weeks ago, however, when Liverpool somehow managed to concede three times in beating group rivals Salzburg, and now, after losing 2-0 at Napoli in their opening group away game, the Reds again looked curiously susceptible.
More than anything they appeared vulnerable to the most basic of long through-balls, with Ally Mbwana Samatta racing clear of Naby Keita and rolling a shot just wide, before Paul Onuachu found himself goalside of Dejan Lovren and drew a fine save from Alisson.
And on 25 minutes, indeed, Genk thought they had equalised after Samatta rose majestically above James Milner and headed past Alisson, only for VAR, after what seemed like an age, to decide he had pushed his marker.
It was a harsh call, but probably correct and, if that was a stroke of luck for the visitors, Liverpool enjoyed another such piece of good fortune before the interval when the lively Junya Ito crossed dangerously from the right and Samatta slid in to come within just millimetres of converting it.
Still, for all those weaknesses, there was enough traffic in the opposite direction to keep Klopp satisfied, with Roberto Firmino influential in most of their best moments.
Sadio Mané was on the receiving end of one sublime pass from the Brazilian, advancing and drawing a decent save from Gatean Coucke. Mo Salah dipped a 25-yard free kick just over the Genk bar, the overlapping Andy Robertson was denied at the near post and Salah, again, wasted a half-chance with a close-range header.
Yet at least Firmino, who claimed hopefully and in vain for an early penalty as he tried to convert a far-post cross from Milner, impressed. And it was the Brazilian who set up the all-important second goal for Oxlade-Chamberlain. It came on 57 minutes, just as Genk appeared to be building up a head of steam.
Firmino, as he does so often, showed amazing technique and vision to control the ball in the area and lay it off to his team-mate, who was lurking with intent outside the box. Oxlade-Chamberlain had much to do, and did it in breathtaking fashion, with a first-time flick of the right boot which sent the ball sailing into the night air and into the Genk goal via the underside of the crossbar.
The smile on Oxlade-Chamberlain’s face spoke to his own slight disbelief at the audacious finish but also, presumably, the pure relief of being back in the thick of meaningful action with the champions of Europe. Yet it was hard not to feel a degree of sympathy for the Belgians, only in existence for 31 years and currently mired in a spell of poor form after winning their domestic league title last season.
They were clearly still keen to make an impression on the contest and the group and might have edged closer to that target moments after the goal, only for Samatta to glance a great corner delivery from Bryan Heynen over the bar.
But the Belgian race was run, Liverpool having clinically strangled the life out of the game and, for good measure, Mané would give the scoreline a wholly unjust look after 77 minutes. It was a superb flowing move, as well, featuring all three of the Reds’ illustrious forward line, with Firmino slipping the ball to Salah, who quickly moved it on for Mané to lift over the onrushing keeper.
Salah had the final say for Liverpool, three minutes from time, receiving a Keita pass, swivelling away from a group of three defenders before beating Coucke with a shot into the far corner. At least some justice was done seconds later when substitute Dieumerci Ndongala skilfully darted into the Liverpool area and pulled the ball across for Stephen Odey to turn and shoot in from just outside the six-yard box.
Coucke 7; Maehle 6, Cuesta 7, Lucumi 6, Uronen 6; Ito 8, Heynen 7, Berge 6, Bongonda 6 (Ndongala 66, 6); Onuachu 7 (Odey 80), Samatta 7.
Subs: De Norre, Dewaest, Hrosovsky, Hagi, Vandevoordt.
Alisson 7; Milner 7, Lovren 5, van Dijk 6, Robertson 6 (Gomez 63, 6); Oxlade-Chamberlain 9 (Wijnaldum 73, 6), Fabinho 7, Keita 5; Mane 7, Firmino 8 (Origi 79, 6), Salah 6.
Subs: Gomez, Adrian, Henderson, Lallana, Brewster.
Referee: Slavko Vincic (Slovenia) 7