Liverpool 3 Mané 17’, Salah 77’, 83’
If winning ugly — the ability to take all three points even on a day when on balance of play and chances, you don’t necessarily deserve it — is the mark of a champion, then Wednesday night’s win over Stoke should raise the expectations of Liverpool fans all around the world.
A bit of rotation on tap for Jürgen Klopp’s Reds tonight, as Joël Matip, Sadio Mané, Gini Wijnaldum, Emre Can and Roberto Firmino were all restored to the starting eleven following the 1-1 draw to Chelsea at the weekend. Dominic Solanke was handed his first Premier League start for the visitors, spearheading the attack alongside Firmino, as Klopp trotted out a 4-4-2 similar to the one that was so successful against West Ham.
It started well enough for the Reds too, as they steadily built up pressure over the course of the opening 20 minutes, culminating in a delightful goal. Joe Gomez overlapped as hard as a fullback could possibly overlap, and — amid complaints that the ball might’ve crossed the line, cut the ball back for Solanke. An outside the boot flick found Mané, whose perfect first touch was only outdone by his second, a deft chip over the onrushing Lee Grant. Liverpool were in charge, and in the lead.
The Reds were unable to build on their lead, however, and around the half hour mark, the tide began to turn. Stoke started to exploit the space between the midfield and defensive lines, and continually found room behind Alberto Moreno, while Liverpool struggled to keep hold of the ball or launch any counters. The hosts were limited to long range shots and balls into dangerous areas that they never quite turned into proper chances, but the pressure was starting to mount.
Solanke missed a glorious chance after a back-heeled one-two with Firmino, before disaster nearly struck at the other end. Mame Biram Diouf raced through the Reds backline and was hacked down by last man Simon Mignolet. Stoke were rightfully awarded a free kick at the very edge of the box, while the Belgian was wrongfully allowed to remain on the pitch. Xherdan Shaqiri smacked his free kick off the wall and out for a corner, and Matip narrowly headed the subsequent set piece wide of his own post.
At the very end of the half, the Reds finally managed a dangerous counter attack, and while Solanke’s through ball for Mané was flawless, the Senegalese attacker’s three touches and finish were anything but, ending in a shot that bounced out off the post.
The Potters very nearly pulled one back immediately as the second half began, as former Red Panda Joe Allen struck a Diouf knockdown off a defender and out for a corner. Stoke continued to press forward, taking advantage of their superior numbers in the half space, and halfway through the frame, Allen again went close, this time following a Peter Crouch header, but the Welshman proved that his finishing has not improved since his days at Anfield, blasting over from 10 yards.
Jürgen Klopp eventually made the changes the game was screaming out for, introducing Mohamed Salah and James Milner in place of Solanke and Oxlade-Chamberlain, allowing the Reds to revert to their familiar 4-3-3 and eat up the spaces in which the hosts were having their success.
It paid dividends almost instantly, and thirteen minutes from time — after Stoke had been seeing less possession — Mané snatched a loose ball in the Stoke area, turned Darren Fletcher inside out and chipped a ball to the far post. Mohamed Salah proved that he is arguably Europe’s most in-form forward at the moment and confidently hammered a volley past Grant in the Stoke goal.
The Reds found their stride again, and Mané went close with a header that whizzed over the bar following a Salah corner, before the final nail went into the Stoke coffin. Erik Pieters allowed a long, lobbed clearance to bounce, and had his pocket picked by Salah, who raced clear and slotted past Grant to cement Liverpool’s win and his status as top goal scorer in the league.
There was — naturally — a bit of shenanigans at the death, as Diouf pounced on a Mignolet rebound, slammed it off the crossbar, only for Crouch to whiff on his shot from six yards and Diouf to blast the loose ball over from a similar distance, but the Reds got their clean sheet to go with their three points.
Despite the 3-0 scoreline, this was not a pretty performance from Klopp’s men, and on any other night they could have lost 3-2 or won 5-3. Quality of finishing told in the end, but only after Salah came on, and the Reds can count themselves lucky their opponents didn’t capitalise on the tactical mismatch that occurred in the middle third of the match. They were also extremely lucky Mignolet’s clumsy challenge didn’t end in an eviction and they were allowed to play the second half with eleven men.
Mohamed Salah, though. The little Egyptian is in stunning form, and his 12 goals in 14 appearances puts him two clear of Harry Kane at the top of the Premier League scoring charts. His 59% shot accuracy and 24% conversion rate are both elite, putting any notion that he is a poor finisher to shame, while the jarring contrast between the team’s cohesiveness with and without the 25-year old on the pitch will have Reds fans purring and crossing their fingers for his continued healthy at the same time.
So, a middling performance with some tactical blemishes, bailed out by a lenient, referee, some sloppy finishing, and an elite talent in the form of his life ebign introduced at just the right moment. We’ll take that.