New Year’s Day, 2018. Turf Moore. It was the last time Liverpool went into a Premier League game without Virgil Van Dijk or Mohamed Salah in their opening line-up.
Ragnar Klava’s stoppage-time winner scored three points next to Jurgen Klopp against Burnley that day, but there was nothing dramatic about watching Leicester.
Johnny Evans’ own goal gave Liverpool the lead within 21 minutes and Diogo Jota’s header doubled the lead just before the break.
Brendan Rodgers had no way back for Leicester. Roberto Firmino’s late header sealed the victory. The win pushes the resignation champions to the second goal in the table, with only a goal difference, which prevents them from knocking Tottenham out of the top spot.
The team had a terrific-looking fixture against the team coming in over the weekend as Premier League leaders, boasting a 100 per cent record from home this season. Record for a 5-2 win over Manchester City at Etihad Stadium.
The way Jamie Verdi was cut by Pep Guardiola’s team, Liverpool also controlled the counter-attack at Stan Villa with their stars, with the possibility of a home defeat.
Instead, they easily negotiated a game on a record-breaking night at Anfield in which Liverpool extended their unbeaten home run to 64 league games. It was a reminder that, whatever the line-up, the champions remain the team to beat this season.
The performance of the deputies illustrated that point.
Reliable for Miloner Klopp
From the start, Lister focused his attacks on the right side of Liverpool, where James Milner was starting for the first time this season in the absence of Trent Alexander-Arnold. About one-sixth of the attacks came down with only 14 percent on the other side.
“Maybe they’re trying to take advantage of the fact that Liverpool have a temporary full back,” said Jamie Carragher. “But you can’t really call it temporary because it plays a role in every position.”
More than a Milner job, he shone, constantly feeding the front field into measured balls. He helped start for Jota, Sadio Mane and Nabi Kita, as well as providing corners from which Evans went ahead of his own goalkeeper and Firmino added a third.
“James Milner has been brilliant,” Kerrigher said.
“His passing has been fantastic and he still has the power to get in line.”
Under real pressure from James Justin and Harvey Barnes, Milner nevertheless touched the most in the first half, created the most chances and captured the ball more often than any other player on the pitch. It was an impressive effort.
When Keita came down with a muscle injury early in the second half, Milner showed his diversity by moving Neko Williams into midfield with a right-back.
It was another reminder that, at age 34, it remains an important asset.
Jota added a lot to the attack
The expectation was that the watch would prove equally useful to Milner because of his ability to cover different positions and so it has proven to be. He already believes, Roberto Firmino and now Salah have already filed for this Premier League season.
But the surprising thing is that Jota has done more than just fill. His goal against Leicester was the eighth of all season in all his competitions and the fourth consecutive game at Anfield in which he got a net. The September signature is blooming.
“How much he has started for his Liverpool career,” Keragher said. “It has always been thought that Liverpool’s front three could not really get into it, but they need a certain back-up. I think he will make himself more than a back-up at the moment.”
Jota’s overall performance was that of a confident and high quality player, who tested a per se smile by his efforts before and after his goal. Salah’s ability to cut inside from that right wing is an important strength for Liverpool but Jota made an enthusiastic impression and was very beautiful and quick to face the aging Christian Fuchs.
The result was that Liverpool were able to highlight their high-profile loss. Without last season’s top scorers, their great contributors to their goals, and a center-behind partnership that provides a platform for that success, they were still able to easily win against in-form teams in the Premier League.
“Not only in terms of the game but psychologically Jurgen Klopp will lose two of your center-backs for the whole season, what it will feel like when his players get back from the international break,” Keragher said. “A lot of people would have thought that Leicester would have got something here today. It looks like a huge victory.”
The clean sheet, in which Fabinoho and Joel Matip Verdi are doing well to deal with the best pace, will be particularly satisfying for Klopp after running in six Premier League games in which they have not been able to keep up the opposition. Curtis Jones, 19, meanwhile, looked comfortable in midfield since the start of just the third Premier League of his career.
It is unclear whether Liverpool will be able to cope with this growing injury list in the long run. Van Dijk’s absence, of course, is long-term and Alexander-Arnold seems to have missed more games before returning from the calf problem he chose in Manchester City.
But Jota has had such an effect that there should be more optimism that even before that, sitting for a game or two will not be a terminal for their hopes. As bright as they were, Liverpool could not be expected to cope without his or Mane’s last term.
Now there’s no guarantee they’ll even drop a bit.
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