Tuesday 23 April 2019

Mane proves pivotal again as Liverpool return to top

Fulham 1 Liverpool 2

Mane
Mane

Jason Burt

There is no doubt who is Liverpool's main man right now. And how they needed Sadio Mane at Craven Cottage yesterday.

Mane scored his 11th goal in 11 games, which is impressive enough. He also earned the penalty that James Milner converted to send them back to the top of the Premier League.

James Milner celebrates his spot-kick winner (Adam Davy/PA)
James Milner celebrates his spot-kick winner (Adam Davy/PA)

How the angst would have enveloped them had they gone into the international break having not established a two-point advantage over Manchester City.

In the first half they seemed so in control, so superior to Fulham and yet their performance deteriorated, became sloppy and they made extremely hard work of this.

That has to be worrying even if the assessment of manager Jurgen Klopp could also be seen as a sign of encouragement when he said they did not "panic" and "did not show the nerves you are all waiting for". Fair enough.

In mitigation this contest came at the end of a week in which they have been emotionally-drained by the drama of so impressively knocking Bayern Munich out of the Champions League.

Jurgen Klopp, right, watched his side beat Fulham (Adam Davy/PA)
Jurgen Klopp, right, watched his side beat Fulham (Adam Davy/PA)

And Liverpool did respond superbly when Fulham equalised. But they were fortunate that they were facing a side who, despite being far more organised and resilient under caretaker manager Scott Parker, are heading for inevitable relegation and are a damning 13 points off 17th place Burnley.

Liverpool have played a game more than City, whose next opponents just happen to be Fulham, and had to win here.

They have to keep on winning. And winning. Nothing short of victory would have been good enough and yet for seven nerve-wracking second-half minutes it appeared they had done what could quite possibly have proved irreparable damage to their title hopes.

Margins

The margins seem set to remain so tight. Nip and tuck, surely, from now until the end of the campaign.

Liverpool have seven games to go - and only one of those opponents, Chelsea, have taken points off them this season, although next up it is third-placed Tottenham.

After three damaging draws away from home this was actually Liverpool's first league win away from Anfield since January 12 but they will have to do better than this from now until the end of this nerve-shredding season.

City have eight games to go and among those is the Manchester derby. Who will blink first?

It felt like it might be Liverpool when they allowed Fulham to score - and it felt like it would be one of their former players taking the headlines.

Ryan Babel, with his dyed red hair - not in any tribute to Liverpool - had claimed he knew the weakness in Virgil Van Dijk's game. But surely he did not mean his fellow Dutchman would make a hash of simply sending the ball back to Alisson.

The goalkeeper was also at fault, appearing hesitant - as was Milner. He had been sent on by Klopp to "calm things down" but sparked the mess by slicing a routine clearance high and aimlessly into the air.

The wind looped the ball backwards for Van Dijk and Alisson to have their mix-up. Babel block-tackled the goalkeeper and then tapped the loose ball into the empty net. He did not celebrate but Fulham - and City - did.

Given how outstanding Van Dijk has been - as has Alisson - it would have been cruelly ironic that those two may have blown Liverpool's title hopes.

Van Dijk did not give the dangerous Aleksandar Mitrovic a sniff but had made a stink of the goal.

It would be Fulham goalkeeper Sergio Rico who would, literally, hand Liverpool a lifeline as he spilled Mohamed Salah's shot and then panicked and needlessly pulled back Mane as he attempted to collect the loose ball.

The Senegalese made the most of it, going down dramatically, but it was a penalty and Milner sent the spot-kick unerringly past a forlorn Rico.

It is now also 51 league games that Milner has not lost when he has scored.

That stressful end seemed a far cry from the control Liverpool had shown in taking the lead.

There was a realisation that Fulham were vulnerable down their right where Timothy Fosu-Mensah was making his first appearance in more than four months.

It looked like it and his cause was not helped by the fact that, in front of him, Floyd Ayite was making his first league start.

Andrew Robertson instigated the opening goal as he exploited the space again and found Mane who worked his way into the penalty area and slipped a smart pass to Roberto Firmino, who had moved cleverly towards the byline.

The Brazilian cut the ball back; Mane continued his own run and side-footed a first-time shot into the net for his 20th goal of the season - drawing him level with Salah.

Mane is in the form of his life and how Klopp, with Salah and Firmino fitful and anxious, must be so relieved that he is.

Liverpool had other chances, with Rico saving well from Fabinho, Van Dijk and Georginio Wijnaldum, and went close when Mane rose to meet Trent Alexander-Arnold's corner with his flicked header clipping the top of the crossbar.

But they were sluggish, maybe fatigue was a factor also, and gradually lost their control.

Soon after Fulham equalised it all appeared to be in the balance. It was to Liverpool's credit that they found the response.

"Average game," Klopp said afterwards, "sensational result".

Thanks to the Mane man, Klopp was right. But it was far too close to being even more sensational for Liverpool and this remarkable title race. (© Daily Telegraph, London.)

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