After the disappointing Old Trafford defeat a week earlier, and given the upcoming two-leg Champions League tie against Manchester City, an Anfield win and three points against Watford were a very important task for Liverpool in their 31st Premier League game of the season.
Six league games previously scheduled for this weekend have been postponed due to the FA Cup quarterfinals. Apart from this one, the ones played were:
AFC Bournemouth 2 – 1 West Bromwich Albion
Huddersfield Town 0 – 2 Crystal Palace
Stoke City 1 – 2 Everton
Coming into the match, Jurgen Klopp was able to count on the entire squad except Ben Woodburn. The young Welshman is still recovering from an illness.
The manager went with this line-up:
Watford manager Javi Gracia had a number of players absent for the visit to Anfield. Defender Craig Cathcart came back into contention for the game, but Nathaniel Chalobah, Tom Cleverley, Christian Kabasele, Gerard Deulofeu, Younes Kaboul and Molla Wague were all unavailable.
The First Half
Liverpool hit their guests hard right from the off. It was immediately clear that Mohamed Salah was going to be Watford’s nightmare, as the Egyptian created chaos in their box with the help of Sadio Mane just as minute three was about to expire, but Etienne Capoue stopped their first attempt. But less than 60 seconds later, Mane engaged Salah with a nice ball from the centre to the right wing. Salah’s incredible piece of skill made Miguel Britos’ bottom hit the floor, and then he slammed in from six yards.
Six minutes later, Jordan Henderson sent a good long pass for Salah behind the Hornets’ back line, but goalkeeper Ornestis Karnezis was quick off his line and successfully collected the ball.
The Reds played patiently. Their extensive build-up play kept Watford defending with all their focus. Jose Holebas’ nightmare down that right flank seemed like it would never end, as the wing-back kept getting tormented by the pace and skill of Salah.
After 25 minutes however, Wijnaldum made a mistake in Liverpool’s half and enabled the visitors to turn to attack briefly, but Andy Roberson’s defending was too good for them. This moment gave some confidence to the Hornets nevertheless and they moved their lines forward.
In the 26th minute, Emre Can, probably the only Liverpool player who didn’t look all that great up to that point, went down with an injury and was replaced by James Milner.
In the 29th minute, another mistake, this time by Joel Matip, allowed visitors to charge once more but they messed it up with a side-switching pass going out for a throw-in. Not giving up, Watford pressed high and forced Henderson into another mistake and Georginio Wijnaldum into committing a foul 40 yards from the goal of Loris Karius. It was the first opportunity for centre-backs Britos and Sebastian Prodl to get forward, but the cross caught Prodl offside.
Henderson got caught in possession quite a few times in this game, which is something we aren’t used to seeing from the captain. It took him only a minute after the last mistake to get dispossessed by Abdoulaye Doucoure on the half-hour mark. Doucoure involved Roberto Pereyra on the right side. As Mane tracked back to help in defending, Pereyra displayed some fabulous skill with a back-heel nutmeg on the Liverpool winger as he got past him and squared it into the box, but Matip was there to clear.
After a three-minute period of Watford moving forward, Matip’s long ball for Roberto Firmino caught them at unawares but the linesman raised his flag. The frozen image revealed that the decision was wrong, and Firmino should have been clear through.
As Liverpool were playing out from the back and Watford were pressing, Joe Gomez sent a beautiful parallel down the right flank for Salah, but Prodl made a decisive sliding tackle and got it right.
That moment however changed the momentum of the game completely in Liverpool’s favour. Apart from a feeble header by Richarlison that Karius saved without any problems, it was all about the Reds for the rest of the half.
In the 36th minute, a great ball by Henderson would have sent Mane through, but the linesman again raised his flag and made the wrong call. Three minutes later, Milner passed to Salah who involved Firmino, Firmino dribbled past Britos and had his shot saved by Karnezis. Three minutes before the break, Robertson produced a great pass for Mane but the Senegalese ruined it with an inaccurate cross for Salah. But less than a minute later, the trio combined again, with a quite different result.
Roberson started from his deep position on the left, passed to Mane who was a bit further in the middle, and Mane waited one second for Robertson to cover some ground down the flank and returned the pass. Robertson whipped in a perfect cross through the six-yard box for the incoming Salah to tap in at the far post.
Between that moment and the halftime whistle, the only thing worth reporting was the names of Mo Salah and Andy Robertson ringing in song around the stadium.
The Second Half
If Watford had any thoughts of putting up a fight to get back into the game at halftime, they were soon dashed.
Four minutes after the restart, Henderson in the middle sent the ball to the right to Salah. Salah beat Britos and Prodl was forced to cut across to stand in front of him. Doucoure slotted into the back line, but Firmino sneaked in between him and Adrian Mariappa just as Salah hit his cross past Prodl. It looked like the cross would come awkwardly for the Brazilian, but not this time, not for this Brazilian. Flying through the air, Firmino flicked the ball with his back-heel into the side-netting at the far post. A beautiful goal, and there was nothing Karnezis could have done.
Still, undeterred by this unwelcome development, Watford players tried to hit back almost immediately. First, a shot from just over 20 yards by Holebas went slightly wide of the near post, though Karius had the corner covered. A minute later, Pereyra whipped a cunning free-kick from a tight angle that had Karius sprawled through the air, hitting the bar just above the far top corner.
At this point Watford opened up and tried to play attacking football, but that only meant more space for Liverpool to exploit.
Around the hour mark, two opportunities for the Reds to inflict further damage followed one another in quick succession. A great pass by Henderson found a diagonal run of Firmino to the left, Firmino’s dribbling had Britos slip and fall down again, but then Firmino returned the favour and slipped as well. As he went down, he tried to square it into the box and hit Mariappa. The ball ricocheted off the defender’s knee and hit his hand, which made Firmino appeal for a penalty, but to be fair, it would have been harsh had referee Anthony Taylor pointed to the spot for that.
Then Firmino failed to direct a good cross by Gomez goalwards; it just grazed his forehead slightly and went out for a goal-kick.
Not satisfied with Richarlison’s contribution, Javi Gracia took the attacker off after 65 minutes and sent on Will Hughes.
During the next couple of minutes, Watford did their best to apply as much pressure on Liverpool as they could, but to no effect. After that, the game slowed down for a while with the Hornets seeming satisfied to focus on damage limitation, while the Reds were obviously happy with their comfortable lead.
Sensing he needed to shake things up some more, Gracia replaced the ineffective, practically invisible Troy Deeney with Stefano Okaka after 70 minutes. At the same time, Klopp freshened up his midfield by taking out Wijnaldum for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Seven minutes later, the former Arsenal man took a rather unreasonable shot straight at the ‘keeper; he had Salah open on his right.
But straight after that, Mane escaped Prodl down the right and burst into the box, there he ran into a crowd of yellow shirts and laid it off for Salah. Salah went to the right, then switched to the left, and thus created the narrow tunnel he needed to guide his shot past the three defenders that were dancing to his music. Karnezis had his view blocked and couldn’t react in time. A hat-trick for Mo Salah.
Two minutes later, Firmino left the pitch and was replaced by Danny Ings.
Then Watford played their best move of the game, which ended with Doucoure sending a lovely through pass into the box for Okaka, but Okaka’s shot was anticipated and blocked well by Matip.
With eight minutes to go, Doucoure was again at the centre of attention. He gave the ball away in his own half, straight to Salah. Salah sent it right for Oxlade-Chamberlain, but Doucoure gave his all to get back and successfully corrected his mistake. A minute later, Mane engaged Ings with a nice lobbed pass over Watford’s back line a yard inside the box. Ings controlled it well and blasted it on target, but Karnezis made a great save to deny him.
The clock was showing 85 minutes when Capoue inexplicably gave the ball to Milner in the middle of the pitch. Milner quickly found Salah on the edge of the box, and Salah selflessly employed Ings on the left. Ings took a low shot, Karnezis saved it but fumbled, and Salah slammed it in.
In the remaining period of the game, Milner took it upon himself to be the team’s main playmaker. He created three chances for three different players, but Mane couldn’t control his pass properly, Salah couldn’t get to it before Karnezis, and Ings was caught offside.
With only two minutes of added time, the last attack of the game belonged to the visitors as they tried to get a consolation goal. Milner this time lost the ball to Doucoure, Doucoure gave it to Okaka who involved Hughes on the right wing, but Hughes’ cross was intercepted and cleared out of bounds by Matip. Anthony Taylor then blew the final whistle, not allowing Watford to take the corner.
A few mistakes in midfield aside, it was a good overall performance from Liverpool, mostly confident and composed, topped up with impeccable finishing – the way it should be against opposition like Watford. Perhaps Watford didn’t deserve such a hard thrashing, but the Reds certainly deserved their convincing win. Mohamed Salah is now comfortably the Premier League’s top scorer with 28 goals to his name, four more than the nearest competitor – the injured Tottenham striker Harry Kane.
These three points mean Klopp’s men have leapfrogged Spurs in the table and are currently third, just two points off Manchester United in second again, though all the teams around them have a game in hand.
Next up – Crystal Palace away, on the last day of March, just before the big Champions League showdown with Manchester City.
We walk on.