There’s rarely a dull period in a game with Leeds United involved since Marcelo Bielsa was appointed manager back in 2018, and it certainly wasn’t the case on Sunday, when they welcomed Liverpool to Elland road in the fourth round of the Premier League season. The visitors, however, walked away victorious, with Mohamed Salah capitalizing on a fine low cross from Trent Alexander-Arnold in the 20th minute, Fabinho making the most of a desperate scramble in the Leeds box after a corner in the 50th, and Sadio Mane being the benefiter of Thiago Alcantara’s composure to set the final score in injury time.
The overall impression of this mostly exciting contest was significantly marred two minutes before the hour mark, when Leeds defender Pascal Struijk recklessly tackled Harvey Elliott from behind, causing the Liverpool midfielder a serious injury which will now keep the 18-year-old out of action for a long time. Struijk was sent off, and the match lost a lot of its previous dynamics from that point on.
There probably wasn’t enough talk about the way Elliott performed in the previous matches this season. To get where he did, to play alongside players like Virgil van Dijk, Mohamed Salah, Thaigo Alcantara, Fabinho, Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino, and other top class players who’ve been the spine of Jurgen Klopp’s team for years, at the age of 18, and not look out of place at all, is quite an achievement. Among other, more obvious things (talent, work-rate, discipline), it requires incredible amounts of self-confidence and mental strength, not to mention a suitable set of circumstances beyond the player’s control.
And yet, Liverpool lost the services of Georginio Wijnaldum this summer and chose not to sign a replacement, despite the experienced Dutchman being one of the most consistent performers in the last five years, and Elliott is probably among the reasons behind that decision. Throw in the fact that the youngster started three of the four Premier League matches the Reds have played so far this season, including a blockbuster clash against Chelsea, and it’s an iron-clad testament to the progress he has made in his short career so far.
Struijk’s tackle on Elliott, though perhaps reckless, didn’t seem to have been malicious. Nevertheless, Elliott suffered a dislocated ankle and Liverpool have confirmed he requires surgery. It means it’ll probably be several months before we see him in action again, and it remains to be seen at what level he will be upon return. Klopp, his team and their supporters will be hoping he will be able to pick up where he left off.
Struijk himself looked stunned by the consequence of his tackle, and even though some of his teammates protested against the red card awarded by referee Craig Pawson, the centre-back did not. He simply stood there for a while, and then walked off the pitch, still with a look of shock on his face.
Salah the Centurion
When Liverpool signed Salah from AS Roma in 2017, many were underwhelmed, particularly in light of the reports at the time that the Egyptian hadn’t been their first choice for a wide attacker that summer. Salah managed to silence most of his doubters straight away, breaking the Premier League record with 32 goals in his first season at Anfield, and has been performing at world-class level ever since.
The opening goal of this game was his 100th in the English top flight, and only four players in its history have managed to get there faster. Overall, it was his 128th goal in 207 appearances in a Liverpool shirt.
Salah is a forward who boasts electric pace, excellent dribbling skills and a notable predatory instinct, the latter of which he showed perfectly as he reacted to Alexander-Arnold’s pass across the six yards to slam home.
What about Mane?
The fact that Mane hasn’t been delivering as many goals since the start of last season as he would have wanted cannot be hidden. When Liverpool won the Premier League title in 2019-20, he had 18 league strikes, but that number fell to 11 last term. The Senegalese can be said to have become rather wasteful; he missed a couple of very good chances at Elland Road too.
However, there has certainly been no wavering when it comes to his commitment and the effort he keeps putting in every week. His cat-like physique is still a nightmare for defenders to deal with, and he is constantly involved in the game, whether things are going well for him or not. Not many players boast such determination in face of what has been described as ‘poor form’, and there is obviously a reason why six-time Ballon d’Or winner Lionel Messi openly expressed admiration for the Liverpool forward, naming him the best in the world in 2019.
Having had a penalty claim denied in the situation which preceded the second goal, Mane had to endure hostile noises from the stands almost every time he touched the ball in the remainder of the match. Still, he rose to the challenge of the crowd and silenced them in the best way possible – by scoring a trademark goal to put the finishing touch on the match.
Liverpool may have won the match comfortably in the end, but there were several fine performances for the home team as well. One of them was put in by striker Patrick Bamford, who came close to giving his team’s supporters something to cheer about on several occasions, most notably when he stole the ball from Thiago in the middle of the park and, having spotted Alisson Becker off his line, launched it goalwards. The Brazilian ‘keeper, however, managed to get back just in time to tip it over the bar.
There were also a few moments when the 28-year-old England international managed to avoid getting caught offside and exploit Liverpool’s high back line with impeccable run-timing and a sense of space, thwarted eventually by the passes being either mistimed or misplaced, or a good reaction from the visitors.
Bamford has been doubted for years by many who claimed he simply didn’t have the quality required to play in the Premier League, but he has certainly proven such claims baseless.
The table and challenges ahead
The most important result regarding the top-end of the Premier League table this weekend was arguably Tottenham Hotspur’s loss to Crystal Palace in the first match of the round. Spurs had been the only team with a 100% record going into it, and others who have their eyes on the trophy at the end of the season will be thankful for the timing of Patrick Vieira’s first win as the Palace manager.
At the moment, three teams share the top spot with 10 points each and a plus-eight goal difference each; Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea. They could be joined by Everton on Monday, after the Toffees face Burnley at Goodison Park. Defending Champions Manchester City, Brighton and Hove Albion and Spurs are close behind with nine points.
Liverpool face AC Milan in the opening round of the Champions League at Anfield on Wednesday. It should be an interesting meeting between the six-time and seven-time European champions, after Liverpool beat Milan on penalties in the final of the competition on that incredible night in Istanbul in 2005, and the Rossoneri got their revenge two years later. After that, it’s Crystal Palace on Saturday, also at Anfield.
Meanwhile, the two points Leeds have acquired so far don’t seem to do justice to their quality. Be that as it may, they’re hanging directly above the relegation zone, and they could find themselves in it if Burnley avoid defeat against Everton. Marcelo Bielsa’s side face Newcastle at St. James Park on Friday.
Nonetheless, Leeds are very likely to rise above the fears of relegation very soon. After all, they’ve lost two matches so far, and those were against Manchester United and Liverpool. Bielsa isn’t likely to give up on his attacking-style football any time soon, and it probably won’t be long before we see his team climb up the ladder.
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