Table toppers Liverpool welcomed bottom side Watford to Anfield in the opening game of the 17th round of the Premier League roller coaster on Saturday.
The Champions League holders entered the clash from a position stronger than ever, with 15 wins and a draw from the opening 16 games. They are the only undefeated team in the top five leagues across Europe, striding towards the Premier League title they’ve been waiting for since 1990.
Watford could not have been in a more different position, with just nine points to their name and looking at all the other teams in the league from down below. Their involvement in the relegation battle is not only imminent; it has already started, with more than half the season to go.
Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp, who has just signed a contract extension keeping him at the club until 2024, was without the services of defenders Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren. The Cameroonian has been out for a long while now with a knee problem, while the Croatia international suffered a few minor niggles in the previous games and was ruled out by Klopp, with no time-frame on his absence. Midfielder Fabinho is still out as well and won’t be back before the year ends. Left-back Andy Robertson was rested, starting on the bench.
Alisson Becker was in goal. In the absence of Matip and Lovren, Joe Gomez partnered Virgil van Dijk at the back, with Trent Alexander-Arnold and James Milner on either flank. Captain Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum acted as the double pivot, Xherdan Shaqiri was on the right flank, Sadio Mane on the left, and Roberto Firmino as the number 10 played behind Mohamed Salah as the striker this time.
Nigel Pearson, who has just replaced Quique Sanchez Flores as the Watford boss, was without defenders Jose Holebas and Adam Masina, as well as midfielder Roberto Pereyra. Defender Craig Dawson was back from injury, but he only made the bench.
Ben Foster stood between the posts. Christian Kabasele paired up with Craig Cathcart at the back, flanked by Kiko Fermenia on the left and Adrian Mariappa on the right. Etienne Capoue and Abdoulaye Doucoure sat in deeper midfield positions, and the trio of Gerard Deulofeu, Will Hughes and Ismaila Sarr supported captain Troy Deeney upfront.
The First Half
Liverpool took control of the proceedings early, but it was the Hornets who threatened first on the stroke of five minutes as Sarr tried to find Deeney in behind the defence. However, the Watford captain couldn’t connect with the ball properly. The home side had a few moments that could have been dangerous but they always lacked just a little bit of composure on the ball.
Watford players made it clear that they weren’t going to allow the Champions League holders to develop their game as they’re used to doing. The visitors defended very well, with a nice dose of balance between pressing high and dropping into a low block in numbers. Going forward, they tried to overload Liverpool through the middle, with Doucoure drifting forward and practically playing as a second striker close to Deeney. Deulofeu was often roaming from one side to the other, trying to create confusion among the opposing defenders.
On the other hand, Liverpool mostly deployed their attacks down flanks, with Milner and Mane combining on the left and Alexander-Arnold doing the same with Shaqiri on the right, while Salah and Firmino were closely marked in the central attacking areas. Henderson was doing well defensively in the middle of the park, but his passing left a lot to be desired early on. Wijnaldum was as industrious as ever.
In the 22nd minute, Mane broke down the left for Liverpool and sent the ball across, and eventually Henderson tried to hit a volley but the shot went far from the target. Less than a minute later Hughes threatened at the other end as he stole the ball off Firmino, charged through the middle and took a shot, but he missed the target as well. Liverpool had another chance soon afterwards as Firmino sent Salah running down the right, but the Egyptian couldn’t find the top corner with a curled effort.
A period of hard battle in the middle of the pitch followed, during which referee Andre Marriner allowed some tougher play from both sides, and then Watford showed some serious attacking intent for a few minutes. They had a great chance in the 37th minute as Capoue ran in behind down the left and found Doucoure alone on the penalty spot, but the midfielder mishit the ball. They won a corner, but it quickly turned to their undoing. The box was cleared. Mane picked the ball up and gave it forwards to Salah.
The Egyptian charged forward, turned Kiko inside out and whipped a right-footed curve to the far top corner.
Watford had a great unexpected chance to equalize in the 42nd minute as Deulofeu broke past Alexander-Arnold down the left and found Sarr unmarked some seven or eight yards from the goal, but the young winger embarrassed himself thoroughly by scuffing his shot. Liverpool almost punished his team straight away as Salah took advantage of another long pass and this time involved Mane, but the Senegalese was stopped by the excellent Kabasele.
The Second Half
Liverpool attacked from the start of the second half and they almost capitalized early on a dangerous cross from Alexander-Arnold. Watford hit back quickly however, through Sarr who charged forward twice but first he was dispossessed by Gomez and then Alisson saved his shot. In the 50th minute, Shaqiri did well on the left wing for Liverpool and whipped in a great cross which Mane slammed into the net with his forehead, but VAR ruled the goal out with the Senegalese offside by half an inch.
Four minutes later, Deulofeu suddenly broke through Liverpool’s offside trap and came out one-on-one with Alisson. He even took a decent shot, but the Brazilian goalkeeper produced a fantastic save.
There was a seriously worrying moment for Klopp in the 58th minute as Wijnaldum went down holding his leg. Medical assistance wasn’t enough to keep him playing, and Robertson came on, which meant Milner now moved to his preferred midfield role.
Watford sought to take advantage of the immediate lack of concentration from the Liverpool players and Sarr broke into the box again, but he was stopped this time by the immaculate Van Dijk. Firmino tried his luck at the other end soon after, prompting a fine save from Foster. Liverpool threatened a few times more through Salah, but the goalscorer first lost a duel against Kabasele, and then took a hasty shot wide of the target.
As the game entered the final third, the Hornets moved their lines further up, obviously in search of an equalizer, but that made them clearly vulnerable on the counterattack and their defenders now needed to be 100% focused on dealing with the pace of the Liverpool attackers. In the 70th minute, Klopp decided to introduce a fresh pair of fast legs and Shaqiri made way for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Liverpool now moved to slow the game down, keeping the ball safe for large portions of time, probably with the aim of wasting as much time as possible while lulling the opponent into a dangerously false sense of security. After a while, the Reds broke through suddenly several times, but Watford hung on.
It was soon Pearson’s turn to freshen things up a bit and with 15 minutes to go he replaced Deeney with Andre Gray. The newcomer immediately had an opportunity to do some damage in the opposition box, but he apparently hadn’t warmed up properly. Liverpool’s attacks continued, but in the 77th minute Watford broke the bonds again and tried to hit on the counterattack through Sarr, but Gomez was again too good to allow the winger to score.
Liverpool’s centre-back duo were fantastic for the largest part of the game, but in the 81st minute first Gomez made a blunder and allowed Gray to take the ball forward, and then Van Dijk almost beat Alisson with a wayward back-pass which only missed his own goal by a yard.
The moment provided the visitors with a boost and they moved forward in numbers once more, but they were still vulnerable to counterattacks. Mane and Salah almost took advantage of it in the 84th minute, but Foster was quick off his line.
Pearson’s next move was to introduce Quina instead of Doucoure in the 88th minute, to which Klopp responded by replacing Firmino with Divock Origi. And as has been his wont recently, the Belgian was immediately involved in a goal that settled the game.
Mane broke down the right and pulled it back for the incoming Origi, whose scuffed shot was back-heeled cheekily into the net by the inevitable Mo Salah. Since joining Liverpool, the Egyptian now has eight goals in five Premier League appearances against Watford.
It’s fair to say that Watford deserved at least a goal from this game. The actual difference between the two teams on the pitch was far less than previously on paper, and far less than the league table suggests. However, the individual quality of Mohamed Salah saved the day for the hosts on this occasion, and Klopp and his men won’t be looking back for too long. The three points in the bag will be all they cared about. They increased their lead in the table to 11 points; at least for a few hours as they waited to see of Norwich City could do something at the King Power Stadium against second-place Leicester.
It was a good first game in charge for Pearson. His team played without any pressure as nobody would’ve expected them to stop Liverpool, and they gave a reasonably good account of themselves at the ground among the toughest to visit in the world. They will, however, have to start producing results and getting some points on the board soon if they are to even hope to stay in the Premier League come summer.
LIVERPOOL: Alisson 8, Van Dijk 7.5, Gomez 7.5, Alexander-Arnold 7, Milner 7, Henderson 6, Wijnaldum 7 (59′ Robertson 7), Mane 7.5, Shaqiri 6.5 (70′ Oxlade-Chamberlain 7), Firmino 6 (88′ Origi N/A), Salah 8.
WATFORD: Foster 7, Kabasele 7.5, Cathcart 6.5, Mariappa 6, Kiko 6, Capoue 6, Doucoure 7 (88′ Quina N/A), Hughes 6.5, Deulofeu 7.5, Sarr 6, Deeney 6 (75′ Gray 6).
GOALS: Salah 38′, 90′.
YELLOW CARDS: Hughes 24′, Henderson 43′, Milner 57′.
REFEREE: Andre Marriner.
DATE & VENUE: December 14, 2019, Anfield, Liverpool.
- Soccer News Like
- Be the first of your friends!