It was the start Liverpool fans had dreamt of. Just as the clock crept into the third minute on a wintry, intense night inside Anfield, Sadio Mane collected the ball inside Leicester’s penalty area and skimmed a right-footed shot beyond Kasper Schmeichel.
The Kop didn’t have to wait long. Unfortunately, Mane’s clinical finish was not a sign of things to come. Leicester, responding well to that early setback, gained a foothold in the game and levelled matters on the stroke of half-time courtesy of Harry Maguire’s volley.
Liverpool failed to take advantage of their early momentum. During the first 20 minutes, it was one-way traffic towards Schmeichel’s goal but the Foxes held firm against the constant wave of red shirts.
Maguire’s goal completely changed the complexion. After the restart, Leicester came out swinging, James Maddison failing to convert a decent chance before Roberto Firmino almost nudged Maguire’s header into his own net, only for Alisson to intervene.
The Reds survived a few scares but, despite Klopp’s animated remonstrations on the touchline, failed to find the all-important winner. Far from their free-flowing best, Liverpool looked tense and, at times, predictable. Mane was bright and Naby Keita showed some nice touches in midfield but Mohamed Salah and Firmino were both subdued.
In the end, it was difficult to surmise whether it was a point gained against a spirited Leicester side – who, let’s not forget, beat Chelsea and Manchester City over Christmas – or two points dropped at a potentially critical juncture in the title race.
Victory would have stretched Liverpool’s lead to seven points over Manchester City but they now face the prospect of facing West Ham on Monday night with their cushion reduced to two, depending on what City do against Arsenal.
Having failed to issue a statement of intent, it leaves the title race brimming with intrigue. But, having been such an unstoppable force at Anfield all season,
Did Klopp get it wrong on Wednesday? We have a look.
Liverpool were boosted by Virgil van Dijk recovering from illness in time to start alongside Joel Matip at the back. Joining them in defence, however, was Jordan Henderson. While Fabinho has played in that position for Monaco and Brazil, he wasn’t quite 100 per cent fit, leading Klopp to place his faith in his captain.
That meant Georginio Wijnaldum was partnered in midfield by Keita, who made just his tenth Premier League start after joining from RB Leipzig.
The Guinean was certainly involved, managing 93 touches during his 66 minutes on the pitch. His most meaningful involvement came shortly before he was replaced by Adam Lallana. Exchanging passes with Firmino, he raced into the box but took to much time, allowing Ricardo Pereira to make a challenge.
Xherdan Shaqiri struggled, too. Also hooked off after 66 minutes, the diminutive Swiss midfielder failed to assert himself on the game, not attempting a single take-on or shot before making way for Fabinho.
With injuries and suspensions, Klopp’s still managed to name a strong team but, with Mane arguably the only attacking player on form, Liverpool were frustrated by a Foxes defence led impressively by Maguire.
No killer instinct
What Liverpool lacked was that killer pass, that moment of defence-splitting incision that has set them apart from their opponents this season.
Question marks have been raised regarding Klopp’s team selection in the past; mainly, starting a static midfield three of Henderson, Wijnaldum and James Milner for the Champions League defeat away to Paris Saint-Germain.
But this was not a case of picking the wrong team. Rather, it was an example of title-race nerves factoring into the minds of the players. A packed, expectant Anfield will do that, especially when the fans have seen a goal inside the first 150 seconds. Credit must go to Leicester, too, who surprised a few with a mix of pressing, defending deep and hitting Liverpool on the break.
While Klopp may make changes for Monday’s trip to the London Stadium – Shaqiri may drop to the bench with Milner back from suspension – but the onus will be on the players asserting their authority over a Hammers side reeling from a dismal defeat to Wolves midweek.
Like Leicester, though, West Ham are unpredictable. Managed by former City boss Manuel Pellegrini, the man who denied Liverpool Premier League glory in 2014, they have beaten Manchester United and Arsenal this season but will go into Monday’s clash on the back of three successive defeats, which included an embarrassing 4-2 defeat to Wimbledon that sent them crashing out of the FA Cup.
Determined to steady the ship, in Marko Arnautovic, Felipe Anderson and Samir Nasri West Ham have enough quality to unnerve the Reds. Being away from home, however, with the pressure slightly eased, should benefit Klopp’s men.
Suffice to say, if City send out a statement by beating Arsenal on Sunday, Liverpool require a much more convincing reply on Monday than what we saw against Leicester.
* odds subject to change
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by Tom Bodell