It was not the greatest goal Liverpool have scored this season, but then it didn’t have to be.
What is was, however, was further evidence that this is a team that does not give up, that will go down fighting for this title, if indeed it goes down at all. Manchester City have to win on Sunday. Liverpool ensured that. They will trail Pep Guardiola’s players by a single point and while the odds still favor the club in pole position, Liverpool will be waiting for any slip, any sign of weakness.
Jurgen Klopp feels out what was pretty much a second string at Southampton, went a goal behind, yet still found a way to win. It wasn’t always pretty, certainly the winning goal wasn’t, but it was damn impressive – Liverpool overcoming their early set-back to dominate.
There was a certain inevitability about the three point, much like Manchester City’s comeback at West Ham. There is a certain inevitability about victory against Wolves on Sunday too. City have to win because Liverpool surely will and Guardiola knows that.
If he was watching on Tuesday night, he probably turned off with a sigh after 67 minutes when Liverpool at last got their noses in front. It followed relentless pressure, but still required a dollop of good fortune. Kostas Tsimikas took Liverpool’s eighth corner of the night and it was an absolute cracker, swinging in a cleared with a glancing header at the near post.
The ball, however, had sufficient spin on it that it traveled as far as the heart of the penalty area where Joel Matip challenges Kyle Walker-Peters. How much Matip knew about it wasn’t entirely clear, but the ball came off him and looped luckily into a part of the goal where Alex McCarthy could do nothing.
From there, little drama followed. Liverpool were in charge and saw the win out impressively. On to the next one. Whoever said it was a marathon not a sprint possibly underestimated.
No Mo Salah, no Virgil van Dijk, no Fabinho, Thiago and Jordan Henderson, no Andy Robertson or Trent Alexander-Arnold, no Luis Diaz or Sadio Mane. It is testament to the strength of the squad that Jurgen Klopp has built that he could come here with so many starters missing or rested and still field a starting XI that would be the envy of most contemporaries. Roberto Firmino and Diogo Jota; Ibrahima Konate and Joel Matip; Joe Gomez and and FA Cup final match winner Kostas Tsimikas. Is there such a thing as a weak team among the elite these days?
Jurgen Klopp was upset about the timing of this match, and he had a point. Having played 120 minutes of an FA Cup final on Saturday, it seemed strange that the league did not push this back to Thursday when its other outstanding fixtures were being played. No doubt television will have had a say and UEFA, too, given that there seems a concerted effort not to put any game in opposition to Wednesday night’s Europa League final between Eintracht Frankfurt and Rangers.
So, despite the many raised eyebrows, this was as good a team as Klopp felt he could put out. He was looking for fresh legs, fresh minds. It wasn’t about giving up on the title, or concentrating on the Champions League final in two Saturday’s time. This was about a team that looked near to exhaustion against Chelsea, and how Klopp keeps them from simply running out of gas.
And his gamble on several personnel who hadn’t got much game time this season initially looked to have paid off. Liverpool started the game well, kept the ball, put pressure on Southampton without making much in the way of chances. At the back, Alisson marshaled his defense well. When Armando Broja broke on the counter-attack after ten minutes, he was the goalkeeper who was swiftly off his line to cut out the ball with his legs.
Yet, on 13 minutes gone, a setback, Lyanco nailed Jota in the middle of the pitch and pushed the ball to Nathan Tella, who put Nathan Redmond away on the left. He sped down that flank, eluded Gomes, cut inside and unleashed a simply wonderful shot that beat Alisson all ends up. Liverpool were behind. With this scoreline, the title was heading to Manchester, tonight.
On the touchline, Klopp was outraged. He was certain Lyanco had fouled Jota to set up the move and was very vocal with that opinion, waving his arms in Atkinson’s direction, disgusted. Stuart Attwell, the VAR, would have had a look at the build-up but felt no clear and obvious error had been made. Liverpool were going to have to park their frustration, and find a way back into the game.
Almost immediately they came close. Takumi Minamoto, a rare league starter, had a crack from 20 yards which was saved by goalkeeper Alex McCarthy. A minute later, he went one better.
Gomez fed a lovely ball into Jota and his short pass was collected by Minamoto at a tight angle to goal. It didn’t look the right range for a shot but Minamoto’s touch and finish were absolutely splendid. McCarthy was beaten at his near post and Liverpool were level. Mathematically, they would still be in it come Sunday with a draw.
Yet clearly a win was required to put real pressure on Manchester City and Liverpool went for it. Just three minutes later a close range shot by Jota was blocked by Lyanco on its way to goal, the ball eventually ending up with James Milner, whose shot from 25 yards was parried by McCarthy. A remarkable fact about this Liverpool line up: 145 days after Milner made his first-team debut for Leeds, Harvey Elliott was born. Now they’re team mates.
The pressure continued to build. Firmino had a shot from 25 yards that flew just over; a low cross from Tsimikas was met by Jota whose effort narrowly missed the far post. Amid all the action, the luckless Gomez picked up what appeared to be an ankle injury in a tussle and was replaced by Henderson at half-time with Milner moving to the right-back position. Immediately Liverpool’s energy levels improved and Elliott should have done better early in the second-half, put through by Firmino.
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