It was not a vintage showing, and not one to convince anyone that Liverpool’s place in next season’s Champions League is assured, but at this stage of the season they won’t care too much. Liverpool held off Watford just enough to secure a 1-0 victory, a win secured by the most extraordinary Emre Can goal right at the end of the first half.
The victory puts Liverpool four points clear of fifth place, having played a game more than both Manchester clubs beneath them. But at the rate City and United are going at present, Jurgen Klopp might be quietly confident of planning trips across the continent’s elite competition for next season.
Liverpool’s evening started badly after Philippe Coutinho suffered what looked like a dead leg inside the first five minutes. He gamely tried to run it off, but the four or five minutes he spent limping around the pitch ultimately convinced Jurgen Klopp to introduce Adam Lallana, who had only just returned from an injury of his own.
Shortly afterward, Watford suffered their own fitness issue, as Miguel Britos limped off to be replaced by Christian Kabasele. The constant stoppages were not only a problem for both managers, but they didn’t allow any sort of pattern or flow to be established. The opening 20 minutes were, to put things charitably, scrappy.
It continued that way until almost half-time when Lallana provided the first moment of real quality of interest, crisply striking a volley from 25 yards that thudded against the crossbar. Until that point, it was the only thing to rouse the away fans, while the home fans’ interest was piqued by a couple of fairly blatant dives, one punished with a yellow card (Lucas Leiva) and one not (Can).
But in first-half stoppage time, from absolutely nowhere, Liverpool produced one of the goals of the season.
Lucas skimmed a cross into the area, and Can, as if acutely aware that everyone in the stands was entering the early stages of slumber, eschewed the easy option of taking the ball down on his chest and instead launched into the most audacious bicycle kick. It flew into the top corner. In the context of the game’s general quality, it was utterly incongruous, like a Henri Rousseau hung on a wall of a 4-year-old’s finger paintings.
The pace of the second half picked up a little, and certainly as it progressed, Watford offered more in attack. Liverpool were, once again, seemingly unable to properly impose themselves against one of the Premier League’s lesser teams while proving much more successful against the top dogs.
Klopp brought on Ragnar Klavan toward the end to provide some additional ballast. Ultimately it wasn’t required, although a late Sebastian Prodl shot crashed against the crossbar to give them a late fright. Three more points in the bag. Just about.
It would not take the most insightful or in-depth scouting report of Liverpool to tell you that their primary weakness is from corners. They’ve conceded six from corners this season and 16 from set pieces since Jurgen Klopp arrived about 18 months ago. It’s become the primary target of most opposing teams this season.
“Of course on the corners everybody knows Liverpool are pretty weak,” said Sam Allardyce last week, while indulging in his favourite pastime: explaining exactly how he has “out-tacticed” the latest manager with a big reputation to cross his path and chalked another one up for the brave English boys.
Naturally, this was an avenue of attack Watford pursued, not only trying to win corners in order to stab at the weak belly of Liverpool, but also to throw as many crosses and lofty balls into the area as possible, testing the mettle of their defence and goalkeeper Simon Mignolet.
On this occasion, Mignolet held firm. A man not exactly notorious for his command of the penalty area, and theoretically an easy goalie to bully, Mignolet was terrific and assured in this game, gobbling up virtually every cross Watford threw at them. His assurance presumably gave the Liverpool defence as a whole a lot more confidence and sense of safety.
We cannot draw too many hasty conclusions from one game or declare the problem solved, but this was at the very least a step in the right direction toward curing one of Liverpool’s main ills.
Watford were, in general, stodgily poor in this game. They showed plenty of bluster, a degree of physical play that was as big a factor as any in breaking up the early stages of the game and the odd bit of skill, but nothing particularly special.
In fact, let us not be coy: They were broadly no good at all.
Troy Deeney was frustrated and broadly starved of service, M’Baye Niang didn’t do much, Tom Cleverley probed earnestly but impotently in the way Cleverley does. Etienne Capoue offered some threat from midfield, but even he wasn’t particularly penetrative, withdrawn with about 20 minutes to go.
Barring a complete calamity, they will remain in the Premier League for the second season in a row, having also reached the FA Cup semifinal last term. No small feat for a club the size of Watford.
But what does that tell us about the general quality of the teams below the elite? Had they won this game, Watford would have gone up to ninth in the table with 43 points. As it is, they’re 13th, with 40. There is little to choose between the bunched cluster of mediocre teams in the lower half of the table, with seemingly indistinguishable gaps. At various points of the season, basically everyone from 10th down has looked in some danger of relegation, but few have looked especially likely to overhaul West Brom, never mind puncture the top seven.
So while remaining in the Premier League for the past two seasons is a reasonably impressive feat, the competition isn’t exactly of a dazzling standard. The clubs coming up from the Championship should hold few fears about staying in the top flight.
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