Liverpool 1 Can 45+2'
As has been the case for most of 2017, this was an ugly affair with little in the way of flow or pretty football, but a wonder goal by Emre Can and a resolute performance by the defensive unit was enough for the Reds to grind out a crucial win.
Liverpool lined up with the same personnel that limply conceded their lead and all three points against Crystal Palace a week ago, and with Watford a similarly physical side with a similarly agrarian game plan, fears of a similar performance were valid.
Not much happened in the 35 minutes between Philippe Coutinho getting kneed in the thigh and having to come off for a recently fit-again Adam Lallana, and the latter thumping a dipping, left-footed volley off the Watford bar after a corner, for what would've been a sensational re-introduction to the side. Liverpool passed the ball around harmlessly, Watford eventually collected a poor pass and broke towards the visitors' goal, before shooting from range or handing possession right back.
Then, in the last five minutes of the half, there was the Lallana shot, a hilaribad dive from Lucas Leiva — somehow surging into the opposition area — that rightly earned the Brazilian a booking, and a majestic, glorious finish, completely at odds with what had come before. Lucas collected the ball 40 yards out and chipped a hopeful lob towards the surging run of Emre Can. The ball looked to fall just short of the German's stride, but in a show of grace, skill and athleticism, the immaculately coiffed 23-year old twisted his frame sufficiently to produce a scissor kick finish into the top corner that will be hard to overlook for goal of the year contention. The goal seemed completely disconnected from the rest of the match, but the Reds were up, and their fierce celebrations revealed the importance of just that.
The second half saw the visitors looks far sharper than had been the case before the break, and despite Watford upping the closing down and the kicking and the violence, Liverpool started producing chances. James Milner smashed a free kick straight at Heurelho Gomes, before a Divock Origi run and shot was turned around the post. Mastip found a streaking Origi down the right channel around the hour mark, but the Belgian's effort from a narrow angle was saved by the Watford keeper.
Improved play, shots and chances, but no goals. Familiar scenes to Reds fans, and the expectation that the tide would turn, probably from a set-piece or defensive error, was thick in the air. The home side were unable to produce much, however, and only managed a short period of pressure, culminating in a pair of shots after clearances from the Liverpool defence, the first blocked, the second saved by Simon Mignolet.
Fifteen minutes from time, the Reds had a massive opportunity on the counter, and while Can's pass to Lallana was perfect, the Englishman's legs were giving out, and his miscontrolled first touch led to an off-balance shot that sailed well wide. Substitutions and breaks in play littered the final part of the game, and it would be injury-time before there was any more goalmouth action.
First Joël Matip went on a rampaging run and received the ball beyond the Watford backline, but his shot from a narrow angle was collect by Gomes. Substitute Daniel Sturridge showed hustle and desire in winning the ball from Abdoulaye Doucoure, then skill in beating a man and creating space for the shot, but his finish was touched just wide of the post by the Watford keeper.
There would — naturally — be one final piece of drama. The Reds failed to block and otherwise deal with a cross following a long punt of a free-kick, and the ball fell to Sebastian Prödl at the back post. The Austrian took a mean swing at the ball, but his effort cannoned back off the crossbar, leaving Liverpool's lead intact, and their fans' lives a few minutes shorter.
Another chapter in the win-ugly series, and Liverpool take command of their Champions League destiny again. This was only Watford's second loss at home since January 1st, and for the Reds to produce a win — however reliant on a once-in-a-lifetime wonder-goal — was crucial. With both Manchester clubs dropping points at the weekend, there's light at the end of the CL tunnel, and perhaps even a genuine shot at third place.
It could all be for naught with failure to secure a result against Southampton at Anfield on Sunday, however, and the Liverpool feeder club haven’t lost to the Reds since December 2015, with the Anfield side failing to score against the Saints in three consecutive games. If your hands aren't already firmly grasping your buttocks, now is the time to start.