On a night of frustration and disappointment perhaps it’s time to marvel that it took until the end of January for Liverpool to slip up against a side outside the top six.
The cornerstone of this title challenge has been the Reds’ unfailing ability to fashion victories over the also-rans, from sound thrashings to slender, gritty wins but it was unrealistic to expect perfection in this department all season long.
The chief source of discontent at the end of a 1-1 draw against a Leicester City side that seemed to relish the occasion lies in a sense of missed opportunity. Rafa Benitez had delivered a timely gift with Newcastle’s reminder of Manchester City’s fallibility and all the talk pre-match was of extending the gap at the top and likely dates and destinations for Liverpool’s crowning.
We’re a strange breed; oscillating between excessive caution and well and truly getting ahead of ourselves.
We hadn’t bargained for the weather. A thin layer of snow followed by spiteful hailstones on the walk up to the ground turned the Anfield streets into an urban Cresta Run. Inside, the pitch – an unfamiliar minty green – was a throwback to days when perfect playing surfaces were the preserve of late summer.
Liverpool to win the Premier League – 1.44*
Despite the biting cold an air of expectancy warmed the atmosphere. You’ll Never Walk Alone sung with gusto by a Kop awash with even more swirling flags than usual. The crowd is gearing itself up play a part in the final straight and the throaty roar that signalled the end of a minute’s silence for the tragic loss of Cardiff’s Emiliano Sala felt almost inappropriate in its ferocity.
Making light of the conditions, the Reds started like a house on fire attacking the Anfield Road End.
A slick passing movement left an icy trail on the pitch like a map plotting the destination of the ball to Sadio Mane inside the penalty area. Mane’s low right-foot shot skidded across Kasper Schmeichel and nestled in the far corner of the net to rapturous acclaim; an early goal a dagger to Mancunian hearts hoping for an immediate reprieve.
Sadio Mane to score the first goal (v West Ham) – 5.40*
A second goal at this early juncture felt like it might kill off Leicester and it nearly arrived immediately when Mo Salah’s chip to the far post found Roberto Firmino. The Brazilian’s instant trap set up an instinctive shot arrowed towards the corner but narrowly wide; Schmeichel’s fingertip intervention unseen from the Kop.
Klopp: “To break down a side like Leicester, you have to accelerate, to speed up in decisive areas. I don’t know why, but we didn’t do that. Then we gave a goal away. You pay for your mistakes.” #LFC
— Neil Jones (@neiljonesgoal) January 30, 2019
Leicester had weathered the storm and came back fighting although Liverpool, beginning to struggle with their weight of pass across the dicey surface, largely played into their hands. Alisson Becker induced palpitations, just managing to smuggle a back pass away from a preying Jamie Vardy but the Reds failed to clear. The resulting cross landed on the head of James Maddison in front of goal only for him to nod wide with the Kop goal at his mercy.
It was only a temporary reprieve. After Harry Maguire flirted with a red card, escaping with yellow for pulling back Mane when clean through, he added insult to injury with the equaliser on the stroke of half-time. For once Virgil Van Dijk was culpable, losing his man and allowing Maguire to latch on to a nod over the defence and slot home.
Liverpool to beat West Ham 2-1 – 9.00*
The second half, with Leicester threatening regularly on the counter attack, saw Anfield at its worst; the spectre of dropped points reducing a supportive cauldron to a desperate pit of anxiety.
So high are the stakes, so heartfelt is the yearning for this bloody league title, that all the but the most sanguine of supporters are struggling to contain their emotions. Come May one wonders how many of us will be carried away in straightjackets.
Liverpool notably escaped twice, Alisson’s legs preventing Firmino from putting through his own net and the Reds also grateful for Demarai Gray failing to spot Maddison in space and instead shooting straight at the keeper. At the Kop end, Naby Keita’s curtailed surge into the box had all and sundry beseeching the referee for a penalty but Martin Atkinson, consistently refusing to be swayed by the mob, waved away claims with apparent glee.
Lack of killer instinct cost the Reds against spirited Foxes
Jurgen Klopp’s introduction of Daniel Sturridge and Adam Lallana, both chronically short of the required snap to make an impact, met with further head scratching during the dying minutes as the game petered out into a draw. At the end, Klopp’s customary sortie onto the pitch was in stark contrast to the fist-pumping salute after the win against Palace but despite sharing fans’ frustration the manager is realistic enough to understand that nothing was lost here save for another ounce of our sanity.
*Odds are subject to change.
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