The heat is beginning to ramp up on Liverpool now. The Champions League draw on Friday threw up a massive tie against Manchester City which The Citizens are likely to be favourites for. Apart from that there are also eight massive games still to play in the Premier League before we can look forward to more European nights next season, including the Merseyside derby and a tasty encounter at Stamford Bridge in the penultimate game of the season. Of course, it’s fair to say that any game at this stage of the season is a big game if your team still has something to play for. For Liverpool, that included the visit of Watford to Anfield on Saturday evening.
Jurgen Klopp was left disappointed at Old Trafford last week following the disappointing 2-1 defeat to everybody’s arch nemesis, Jose Mourinho. He responded with changes to his starting line-up. Joe Gomez came in at right back in place of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joel Matip replaced Dejan Lovren at centre half. Jordan Henderson came into the centre of midfield along with Georginio Wijnaldum. They replaced James Milner and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain respectively, who both dropped to the bench. The expected front three of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino started at the top of the pitch.
For new Watford manager Javi Gracia he was looking for a much-improved defensive display from his side. Having been comfortably beaten 3-0 by Arsenal at the Emirates last week a reaction was imperative to stave off the threat of relegation. First choice goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes is now fit but Oretsis Karnezis continues to be start in goal. Reported Liverpool target Abdoulaye Doucoure also started, looking to impress his potential suitors on their own turf. Richarlison had a good start to the season and was another tipped for a move to a big club at the end of the season. However, he now hasn’t scored in twenty games, with his last goal coming on 20th November. Gracia put faith in him here by placing him in the starting XI.
It was clear from the off that whomever Watford started would be in for a tough afternoon, especially the poor guy who would have to face up to the challenge of containing Mo Salah. The Egyptian really looked in the mood right from the kick off and, three minutes in, he punished the away side for not heeding his warnings. Roberto Firmino played the ball to Salah on the right and he immediately made headway into the box. He ran at Miguel Britos and, as soon as he realised Britos was square, went around the outside of him. Britos couldn’t sort his feet out and ended up on his backside. Salah took full advantage by sliding the ball under Karnezis at his near post. It was his first goal since his strike against Newcastle United at Anfield two weeks ago – his longest drought in a Liverpool shirt.
After an explosive start to the game both sides settled into a rhythm. Watford seemed content to win the battle in midfield before attacking us with pace, which almost paid dividends when Roberto Pereyra was set free down their right. He showed sublime skill to get by Mane before putting in a testing cross, which Joel Matip dealt with easily. It was Watford’s first major threat of the half and would prove to be their only one. Although we had lost the physical presence and power of Emre Can thanks to injury, James Milner had come on to replace him and provided the energy that was necessary to combat Doucoure and his midfield partner, Ettiene Capoue.
We were able to capitalise on this and began to create chances. From a Watford corner Salah was released down the left. He cut inside right wing-back Kiko Fermenia before slipping a delightful ball into the path of Roberto Firmino. The Brazilian cut back inside Sebastien Prodl on the edge on the edge of the box before firing towards goal, but the ball was a good height for Karnezis and he saved well high to his right. Not long after though, the charmed life Karnezis’ goal had been leading since Salah broke the deadlock came to an end.
Andy Robertson was having another fantastic game at left back and got forward once more. As he attacked the flank, he looked across the Watford box and curled in a world class ball to the back post. Karnezis seemed caught in two minds whether to come and claim the ball or let his defenders deal with it. In the end, nobody in yellow reacted – but Mo Salah did. He attacked the far stick and poked home the ball which Karnezis had dived past. It was a goal that Liverpool richly deserved and would ensure they would go in at half time with a 2-0 lead.
At the break, Jurgen Klopp will have been delighted with his side’s display. Liverpool had controlled the game and had the joker in the pack which had Watford rattled at the sight of him. Javi Gracia will have been wondering how his side were ever going to get back into this game. At 2-0 it seemed game over and was more a question of how many Liverpool get, rather than if Watford could come back.
After the interval Liverpool pressed ahead in their search for more goals. A reaction was not forthcoming from Watford and it looked like Liverpool smelled blood. There was not let up in the pressure we put on our opponents and we made our pressure pay again on forty-nine minutes. Henderson played an unruly ball out towards nobody on the Liverpool right. Mo Salah wasn’t giving up this lost cause though and chased it down before it could go out. He managed to just keep it in on the Kop byline and looked for support. Firmino was sprinting into the near post and Salah picked him out with an awkward ball. However, Firmino managed to get contact onto it with the inside of his right thigh and flick past Karnezis at his far post. It was a sublime finish and involved that man again.
As the game wore on it became fairly even in midfield. Gracia added Will Hughes into the fray looking to control more of the play in the middle of the pitch. Klopp responded with the introduction of Oxlade-Chamberlain, hoping the pace and direct running would give us a pass to aim for beyond the attentions of the aggressive Watford midfield pair. Pereyra was also causing issues on occasion with his skill. Not long after Liverpool made it 3-0 Watford were given a free kick on the left corner of the Anfied Road End goal. Pereyra stepped up and curled it towards goal but could only find Loris Karius’ crossbar.
You would think that Liverpool may have relented with their pressing as the game wore on, but you would be wrong. Danny Ings was put on to close down from the front and did his job well. But it was Salah who still have the major say in this game. On seventy-seven minutes Mane was sent through on the Liverpool right. He came back inside and played the ball to Salah on the edge of the box. He dribbled into the area and cut onto his right foot, taking three defenders with him, before cutting onto his left and taking the same three back with across the goal. He finally managed to get a shot at goal as he fell over, which trickled past the despairing, lazy foot of the goalkeeper. It was a first Liverpool hat-trick for the Egyptian King and he wasn’t done yet.
Ings had put himself about brilliantly and had already had one good effort saved well by Karnezis. On eighty-five minutes Milner played the ball to Salah, who, in turn, threaded a wonderfully weighted ball to Ings. With Watford’s defence at sixes and sevens, Adrian Mariappa had dropped five yards deeper than his team-mates to play Ings onside. Ings came forward and cut inside Mariappa, before attempting the place the ball into the bottom corner of The Kop net. Karnezis got down quickly to foil Ings, but his handling let him down and you can’t fumble shots in your six-yard box with Mo Salah around. He pounced on the loose ball to thump it into the roof of the net. That was his fourth of the game and his twenty eighth league goal of the season (thirty-five, yes, thirty-five, now in all competitions). Danny Ings deserved a goal, and many Kopites will have been willing the ball in after such horrendous injury problems since joining the club. But no one can deny that Mo Salah was man of the match here and his sublime display warranted every goal to his name.
The referee eventually called time on the game five minutes later, sending Liverpool above Spurs into third in the Premier League table. We are now two points ahead of the North Londoners and seven clear of Chelsea, who lie fifth but have a game in hand. This also cuts the gap on Manchester United in second down to two points, but they also have a game in hand thanks to their progress in the F.A Cup.
There are now seven massive games left in the Premier League and as many wins as possible are needed. That was certainly the case here and many around us will have wanted the opposite reaction to what was given on Saturday. We were ruthless and unforgiving. With so many important fixtures coming up you need your big players to come to the fore. I won’t justify any statements or make any bold claims. Instead, I’ll leave you with this. Mohamed Salah has thirty-six goals in forty-one appearances in all competitions this season, twenty eight of those coming in the Premier League. Need I say anymore?