Title becoming more than a pipe dream
Cardiff City 0 Liverpool 2
Liverpool have overcome numerous obstacles to put themselves within reach of the Premier League title, but a self-imposed hosepipe ban in South Wales on the same afternoon as an impromptu ball boy/girl strike was a new one for Jurgen Klopp as his side chiselled out another pivotal victory.
Cardiff manager Neil Warnock pleaded innocence at the hint of any dirty tricks in an attempt to derail Liverpool's chase for the top, instead diverting attention to Mohamed Salah's fall for James Milner's penalty to confirm a 2-0 victory.
It was Warnock's prerogative to maximise his team's chances, welcoming Liverpool onto a pitch so dry it could have doubled up as the set of 'Lawrence of Arabia' by full-time.
Playing against the clock to disrupt Liverpool's attempt for early rhythm was also straight out of the Jose Mourinho handbook circa 2014 for spoiling Anfield title bids.
That Klopp's side still managed to claim the victory needed to return to the Premier League summit is further testimony to their annoyance value to the reigning champions. They won't go away, keeping their side of the bargain to ensure Manchester City will have to win it rather than bank on the kind of Liverpool implosion that has cost them in the past.
Liverpool's attention to detail most impressed here. Klopp predicted Cardiff's water shortage so ordered staff at the club's training ground, Melwood, to leave the grass long and turn off the sprinklers for the final preparation.
"We had to convince our groundsmen. They didn't want to do it because they're too proud for that. It was against the ethos," said the Liverpool manager. "We trained yesterday for one hour and 10 minutes on a bone-dry pitch just to get used to it.
"Dry pitches are dangerous, for players injury-wise. You run and when you stop, it can happen. It's difficult for the fluency of the game. If you ask footballers what they want, they'd say a wet pitch, let's go, let's pass, let's play football. You can slide better, everything is better. But we were prepared. This time we learned from all of our mistakes in the past."
Liverpool's opening goal from Gini Wijnaldum - their 20th from a set-piece this season - also owed much to homework, although Klopp credited his players for their improvisation, deciding at half-time to try an ingenious new routine.
The Dutch midfielder smashed in a volley from Trent Alexander-Arnold's corner on 58 minutes, Cardiff's players caught expecting another floated ball to Virgi van Dijk.
"I like them taking the initiative, it doesn't happen very often which makes it even better," said Klopp.
Klopp's side has collected 88 points now, which is more than any other Liverpool team in the Premier League era. With one more win they will eclipse what many regard the greatest of all Liverpool sides - Kenny Dalglish's 1987-'88 title winners. They won 90 points in a 40-game season.
The next three games will determine if that statistic is extraordinary or a mere triviality if City win all their remaining fixtures. Klopp is only interested in the final tally.
"The points total is like a bill. You don't know what it's going to be, but when it comes, you pay it," he said.
"In the end we will see how many points we have and then we get what we get."
Cardiff sensed they could prey on the high stakes in their survival quest and were left to lament missed opportunities, none better than for centre-half Sean Morrison who squandered a free header on 65 minutes.
It was a bad afternoon for the defender, who complained vociferously that Salah hit the ground too easily for the 81st-minute penalty. Salah probably did, but only after being wrestled for 30 seconds beforehand.
Until Wijnaldum's opener, Warnock looked like he was relishing Liverpool being visitors for such a critical afternoon. It made his game-plan straightforward.
Cardiff were all toil and discipline, nibbling at the backs of Liverpool's front three as they retreated ever deeper for possession.
Liverpool could have made life easier with a couple of early chances, the best falling to Roberto Firmino after the first penetrating passing move.
The Brazilian snatched at the shot with Neil Etheridge to beat, the blast yards over. Mane also flicked over the bar from cross range, and Cardiff carried a threat every time Nathaniel Mendez-Laing took on Alexander-Arnold in a sprint. The full-back was outpaced three times in the first half.
Former Everton striker Oumar Niasse forced Alisson to tip over from close range, but Morrison's header aside, that was as encouraging as it got in attack for Warnock's side.
Liverpool were studious and professional once ahead and Jordan Henderson ought to have doubled the lead from close range before James Milner's spot-kick settled it.
It feels like a sudden death shoot-out for this Premier League title now.
Each time Liverpool and Manchester City step up they know they next miss could be terminal, so it is appropriate Milner's penalty confirmed the latest three-point conversion in the Welsh capital. City stride up again on Wednesday night still aware one misstep might be decisive. (© Daily Telegraph, London)