PARIS: In a meeting of two former European champions in crisis, Ajax and Olympique de Marseille drew 3-3 in “a crazy game” while Liverpool and West Ham United were also winners on Thursday in the opening round of Europa League group games.
Liverpool fell behind for the fourth time in five matches this season but fought back to beat Austria’s LASK Linz 3-1 in their Group ‘E’ fixture in Linz to make Jurgen Klopp the first coach to win 50 European games at the Merseyside club.
West Ham, who won the Conference League last season, also hit back to beat visiting Serbian club TSC Backa Topola 3-1.
Brighton & Hove Albion, making their European debut in the Europa League, and Aston Villa returning to Europe, after 12 years, in the Conference League, both fell behind early and although they each equalised twice, lost 3-2.
In Amsterdam, Ajax, who have won just two games all season and sit 12th in the Dutch league met Marseille who are third in Ligue 1.
However, after a meeting between Marseille fan representatives and the club’s hierarchy reportedly turned nasty, coach Marcelino, only appointed in June, resigned on Tuesday after just seven games in charge.
On Thursday, both teams tore into the game.
Ajax carved open the visiting defence in the first 20 minutes and took a two-goal lead with goals by Carlos Borges and Steven Berghuis.
“I knew the players would get back into the game and we’d score the goal that would set us free. It was a crazy game, but I also think we were in control,” said interim Marseille coach Jacques Abardonado.
Jonathan Clauss and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang hit back before half time.
As both sides peppered the opposing goals, Kenneth Taylor restored the home edge but Aubameyang levelled again with 12 minutes left. Marseille finished with 25 attempts on goal.
“It could have been 6-6,” said Ajax coach Maurice Steijn. “I don’t want to talk about a crisis, I saw a great match in a full stadium.”
In Brighton, Djibril Sidibe put AEK Athens ahead with a bullet header from 13 yards.
Brighton twice levelled with Joao Pedro penalties and AEK twice regained the lead when sudden deflections in the rain opened up chances. Mijat Gacinovic buried one and Ezequiel Ponce tucked home the winner.
“We can improve but it’s difficult to accept this defeat,” said Brighton coach Roberto De Zerbi. “I can’t be happy when we win at Old Trafford and sad today with a good performance. We didn’t show as much experience as AEK Athens.”
Liverpool, playing in the Europa League for the first time since finishing runners-up in 2016, changed their entire starting 11 away to LASK.
Liverpool looked uncomfortable in the first half against determined hosts who are playing in Europa League group stage for the third time.
They fell behind to a 14th-minute rocket from Florian Flecker.
Darwin Nunez levelled with a 55th-minute penalty kick after Luis Diaz was brought down.
After 61 minutes, Klopp started to replace teenagers with regular starters.
Within two minutes they were ahead when Ryan Gravenberch, on his full debut, burst down the right and crossed low for Diaz to score from close range.
Two minutes from the end Mohamed Salah, a second-half replacement, poked home a third.
“I’m really, really happy, because I said before, I knew it would be difficult and it was difficult,” said Klopp. “A well-deserved win in the end, and that’s it.”
Earlier, Bayer Leverkusen scored twice inside 16 minutes to beat Swedish champions Hacken 4-0 at home while the 2022-23 runners-up AS Roma claimed a 2-1 win at Moldova’s Sheriff Tiraspol with a Romelu Lukaku goal.
Panathinaikos, second in the Greek Super League last season, shocked the 2020-21 winners Villarreal 2-0.
Elsewhere, Stade Rennais midfielder Ludovic Blas found the net in the first minute to help his side earn a comfortable 3-0 win over visiting Israel champions Maccabi Haifa.
Abdallah Sima scored the only goal as Rangers beat Real Betis 1-0 in Glasgow.
In the Conference League, Aston Villa fell behind in the third minute to Legia Warsaw and despite equalising twice lost 3-2.
“We have to be demanding of ourselves to impose the game plan, but we didn’t do it,” said Villa boss Unai Emery, three time winner of the Europa League. “I like demanding games that are a challenge and not easy. Now these will be the types of matches we will face in the group.”
In the Group ‘F’ fixture, Luka Ranieri scored twice for Fiorentina but Mark Mckenzie 85th minute equaliser salvaged a 2-2 draw for Belgian side Genk.
Published in Dawn, September 23th, 2023