Saturday 23 March 2019

Questions coming fast but Reds have all the answers

Brighton 0 Liverpool 1

Paul Doyle

Liverpool did not sparkle here but, more importantly, nor did they wobble. After losing their unbeaten record earlier this month Jurgen Klopp's men returned to winning ways thanks to a second-half penalty by Mohamed Salah. The victory restores Liverpool's lead at the top of the Premier League to seven points and challenges Manchester City to edge closer when they host Wolves tomorrow.

Defeats in their two previous matches led to this being billed as a particularly revealing interrogation of Liverpool, with a team aspiring to be champions required to give persuasive answers. The questions ranged from the elementary to the tricky. Could Liverpool's confidence really be so brittle that a narrow loss at Manchester City and a practically invited one at Wolves would cause it to crumble despite half a season of domestic invincibility prior to that? No.

Liverpool's Mohamed Salah celebrates scoring their winner. Action Images via Reuters/Paul Childs
Liverpool's Mohamed Salah celebrates scoring their winner. Action Images via Reuters/Paul Childs

What about their ability to cope with the pressure of a title race in which their closest rivals have undoubted pedigree and ominous momentum? Their response to that was positive here, but they will be asked again in the months ahead. And what of their depleted defence, which, owing to a spate of injuries, included the midfielder Fabinho alongside Virgil van Dijk? The Brazilian did well in that position during last Monday's FA Cup loss at Wolves but Brighton, who had scored in every home league match so far this season, could be expected to pose a serious test to a makeshift backline.

Fabinho was caught out in the 15th minute when he lost track of Glenn Murray in the box, allowing Brighton's top scorer to meet a cross from the right by Pascal Gross, but the striker headed wide. That was Brighton's only real chance in a first half in which they put a heavy emphasis on defence, with their players entrenched deeply behind the ball in a rigid 4-5-1 formation. This, then, was not a test of Liverpool's defensive fortitude as much as of their creativity. They flunked it badly in the first period.

Liverpool's play from the start was slow and predictable, almost entirely in front of the hosts. Many times this season there has been a disconnect between their defence and attack and usually Xherdan Shaqiri has helped bridge the gap, with Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum industrious but not ingenious.

The Swiss started here in a role that allowed him to flit to and fro but struggled to get involved, although he did have the visitors' best chance in the first half, nodding just wide from 10 yards after a cross from the right by Trent Alexander-Arnold. As so often, Liverpool's full-backs were their most penetrative players, as Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané tended to get bogged down in overly intricate moves in congested central areas.

Jurgen Klopp (Gareth Fuller/PA)
Jurgen Klopp (Gareth Fuller/PA)

Andy Robertson made several typically dangerous raids down the left. One of his crosses, in the eighth minute, might have been converted by Firmino if the Brazilian had been able to get more than a toe on it, while another of his runs ended when he was brought down by Martin Montoya. On the sidelines, Klopp raged at the referee's decision not to award a free-kick, just as he complained about the two times that Shane Duffy grabbed Virgil van Dijk's arm in the box at Liverpool corners. Mostly, though, the Liverpool manager should have been miffed by his team's ineffectiveness against diligent opponents.

It would have been interesting to see at what stage Klopp might have varied their approach but, as it turned out, there was no need for the manager to do so because Brighton suddenly played into Liverpool's hands. A mistake by Montoya early in the second half presented them with an opportunity to launch the sort of rapid counter-attack at which they excel. Salah needed no second invitation, hurtling into the box and letting fly with a low shot that David Button did well to hold.

Two minutes later, Gross made an even more costly blunder, oafishly fouling Salah in the box. It was a definite penalty and the Egyptian's conversion was even more emphatic, blasting it beyond Button and into the corner of the net to claim his 14th Premier League goal of the season.

Now the onus was on Brighton to vary their approach and subject Liverpool's defence to a more vigorous test. Chris Hughton made a double substitution in the 65th minute in an effort to give his team more attacking impetus. Jurgen Locadia showed the hosts' new zeal shortly afterwards, cutting in from the left to unload a 20-yard shot that Alisson pushed around the post.

But that was as dangerous as Brighton got. Liverpool found more vibrancy as the game loosened up and had chances to make their lead more comfortable in the 75th minute but Button batted away his swerving long-range shot. Wijnaldum then flashed a low shot inches wide from the edge of the box after a nimble build-up involving Salah, who missed a much better chance in the 87th minute, dragging a shot wide after a pull-back by James Milner.

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