Having endured a terrible season according to their own standards and suffered some humiliating defeats along the way, Liverpool have extended their unbeaten run to four Premier League matches by beating a resilient Nottingham Forest side at Anfield by 3-2 on Saturday.
It was Diogo Jota who broke the deadlock less than two minutes into the second half. Former Liverpool man Neco Williams equalized four minutes later, but it took another four for Jota to restore Liverpool’s lead. Forest fought back again and in the 67th minute, Morgan Gibbs-White pulled the visitors back level again, but there was always something inevitable about Mohamed Salah hitting the back of the net, and it happened three minutes later to set the final scoreline.
Jota hits form
The Portuguese forward endured a particularly difficult start to the season. He missed the opening five rounds of the league campaign with a hamstring injury and played four goalless matches after overcoming it, only to pick up a rather serious calf problem which kept him out of action for three and a half months.
The 26-year-old returned in mid-February and played another nine league matches without scoring, before hitting Leeds United for two in a 1-6 victory at Elland Road last Monday. He obviously continued playing at that level against Forest, and took his tally up to four – four goals in the last two games.
Liverpool frequently dropped points this season due to an obvious inability to score, and their confidence in front of the opposition goal dropped to such a level that even Salah started missing penalties. With that in mind, Jota’s return to goalscoring ways could’t not have come soon enough, and it seems he’s established himself as a regular starter on the left wing, ahead of Darwin Nunez who plays there occasionally, and for the time being, ahead of Luis Diaz who has only just returned from a five-month absence.
The Reds look extremely unlikely to make the top four by the end of the season, but as long as there’s a theoretical chance, they’ll be gunning for it and having Jota at his best will surely be a great boost.
It’s often been the case with Liverpool this season that they struggle to score first, and whenever they went a goal down, they couldn’t get into proper gear for the rest of the match. But when they scored first, they usually went on to win with relative comfort.
For most of the first half, Forest played with their lines as close to their own goal as possible, keeping things tight at the back and letting Liverpool do what they wanted with the ball at more than 40 yards away from Keylor Navas. The only moments when the home side looked remotely dangerous were set-pieces.
Steve Cooper’s men occasionally looked for former Liverpool striker powerhouse Taiwo Awoniyi upfront to hold the ball up and engage his pacier teammates in a potential counterattack, but that was it as far as their intention to test Alisson Becker went.
Happy with the deadlock remaining intact at the break, they probably went into the second half with the same idea, but they obviously couldn’t do that anymore after the 47th minute, when a corner whipped at just outside the six yards bounced to Fabinho and the Brazilian headed across, for Jota to nod in from very close range. Aware it was now all about getting level, Forest quickly moved forward, and it was exepectedly Awoniyi who held off a challenge from Ibrahima Konate on the left to employ Gibbs-White. The ball then went to Williams on the right and the Wales international had a go, catching a deflection off Andy Robertson and beating Alisson with a bit of luck on his side.
But only four minutes later, a poorly executed offside trap cost Forest dearly as Jota timed his run to perfection to catch Robertson’s deep cross on his chest, letting it bounce once before slamming the half-volley past the helpless Navas.
And yet, Forest rose to occasion once more, and in the 67th minute, Moussa Niakhate launched a trademark long throw into the box, Felipe won the header under great pressure and redirected the ball towards the penalty spot, where Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson had inexplicably drifted away from Gibbs-White. The former Evertonian took his chance and hit an excellent volley, picking up another slight deflection before finding the bottom corner.
But just as Niakhate’s long throw-ins caused Liverpool problems, Liverpool’s excellent set-piece deliveries in the second half completely dismantled Forest’s defence, and it was the case for the third time in the 70th minute as Trent Alexander-Arnold delivered a pin-point ball deep into the box and Salah beat everybody else to it to bag the winner in front of the Kop. Interestingly enough, Forest midfielder Remo Freuler held the Egyptian with both hands when Alexander-Arnold hit the cross, but he ended up actually helping Salah to avoid getting caught offside by slowing him down for a split-second.
Unfortunately for the visitors, this time they couldn’t find an equalizer, even though they tried really hard. A lot of their strength seemed spent, as well as their luck.
The victory has obviously done a lot of good for Liverpool’s bid to end the season as strongly as possible, but just like after the Leeds triumph earlier in the week, it still seems too late to hope for a top-four finish. It still looks like we won’t be seeing the six-time European champions in the Champions League next season.
At the moment, the Merseysiders are seventh with 50 points, six less than Newcastle in fourth, and the Magpies are yet to play their game of the weekend, facing fifth-place Tottenham Hotspur (53 points) at St. James Park on Sunday. Aston Villa are sixth with 51, but Liverpool will also be aware of being tailed by Brighton and Hove Albion, who now have two games in hand and sit directly behind with a tally of 49.
Forest, on the other hand, have now slipped into the relegation zone and things don’t look particularly good for them either. Leicester City and Everton have both moved ahead after beating Wolves and avoiding defeat away to Crystal Palace, respectively, and to make matters worse for Cooper and his team, last-place Southampton appear to have woken up in their late attempt to survive, managing to snatch a point away to league leaders Arsenal on Friday. They were actually two goals up on two occasions in that game, but the Gunners eventually avoided a complete embarrassment at the Emirates.
Both Liverpool and Forest will now turn to their next challenges, with the Reds traveling to London to face West Ham, and Forest welcoming Brighton to the City Ground, both on Wednesday.
The Hillsborough connection
No tale of this match would be complete without saying something about the solidarity of the two sets of fans who both went through the hell of the Hillsborough Disaster, where 97 Liverpool fans were unlawfully killed due to a gross negligence of the South Yorkshire Police.
For a number of years, the lies spread by The Sun newspaper soon after the tragic incident were being disputed only by those who were present at the stadium – Liverpool and Nottingham Forest fans, as well as their families and friends, though it should be said that the Reds had the support of their Blue neighbours Everton in that matter from the very start too.
The fight to unveil the truth has now been won through years of toil by those whose private memories of the victims didn’t allow them to accept the lies they were being fed, and it has certainly taken its toll on them. Therefore, the offensive chants and smears by some of the rival supporters that still ring out through stadiums when Liverpool play are obviously unacceptable, and the clubs which the offenders profess to support have had to issue official apologies for their behaviour on numerous occasions.
It was also most inappropriate for that kind of chanting to be heard at the City Ground when Forest and Liverpool played there back in October, and yet, heard it was.
In response, the majority of the Forest supporters who traveled to Anfield on Saturday decided to show strong support to those still suffering from the long-term effects of the Disaster. They laid flowers at the memorial raised by Liverpool’s iconic ground, and during the game, they exploded into a minute’s applause in which they were joined by the remainder of the stadium, while unfurling a great banner in honor of the Hillsborough victims.
A great gesture of respect and solidarity, most welcome in a time where everything seems to cause division among people.
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