In an explosive finish to an obscenely dull affair, Liverpool force a win in injury time after having looked to throw it away in familiar fashion.
Big changes for Jürgen Klopp’s men on Monday, with only 46 hours between the end of their 2-1 win over Leicester and kickoff at Turf Moor. With Philippe Coutinho and Mohamed Salah left back at Merseyside, Adam Lallana, Dominic Solanke and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain were all handed starts alongside Sadio Mané in a 4-2-3-1. In defense, the fullback pairing of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joe Gomez were both included in a matchday XI for the first time.
Anybody who had watched Sean Dyche’s overachievers in this or any other season knew exactly what to expect from the game; the home side playing tight, disciplined defense, opportunistically looking for chances to break or create something off a set-piece. Pushing high up the pitch forced the visitors to go long, and Burnley were able to use their superior aerial prowess to deny their opposition unbroken spells of meaningful possession. When they did concede the ball by sitting deeper, the Clarets cut off passing angles and tracked runners, making life difficult for the Reds.
As a result, the match became an utter wasteland of non-football for much of its running time, and 36 minutes had passed before the crowd saw a proper chance. A nifty bit of play saw Lallana bearing down on the Burnley backline with runners in front, and he picked out Solanke, whose poor first touch saw Ben Mee intercept the ball, only to have it roll towards Mané. However, a timely intervention from Phil Bardsley prevented the Senegalese forward from ending his four-game goal drought.
Up until that point, a long-range effort from Oxlade-Chamberlain, a Scott Arfield header, and a phenomenal sliding tackle from Lallana had been the only highlights, but as the half wore down, the match came to life. Arfield rolled a 20-yarder inches past Mignolet’s post after a set piece, before the Reds wasted a counter opportunity with some poor decision-making, the makeshift front four clearly not on the same page to extent that the regular starters would be.
Ragnar Klavan sent a gasp through the crowd with a sliding clearance that could easily have been converted into an own goal, ending the half in more dramatic fashion that it deserved.
The second half provided more of the same, and beyond a pair of soft penalty shouts and an improvised Georginio Wijnaldum header that flew over the bar, nothing much happened before the hour mark. Then, fireworks. Oxlade-Chamberlain did tremendously well to carry the ball through traffic and play a gorgeous ball into space for Alexander-Arnold down the left. The 19-year old’s cross was deflected behind Sadio Mané, but the former Southampton man stopped the ball, turned 270 degrees and swung a leg at it in one fluid motion, sending the ball flying into the top corner. It was a stunning finish, and the kind of thing one expected would be required to break the deadlock.
Naturally, Burnley were now forced out of their shell, but a lack of pace up top saw the visitors struggle to take advantage on the counter, particularly after Roberto Firmino replaced the goalscorer Mané. Nonetheless, the final fifteen minutes contained far more action than the opening seventy-five had.
Alexander-Arnold’s long-range thunderbolt was slapped wide by Nick Pope, before a Firmino cutback rolled agonizingly across the Burnley six-yard box. Ashley Barned volleyed inches wide after the Reds failed to deal with another second ball from a set-piece, and Pope got an impressively strong hand to an Oxlade-Chamberlain effort from six yards out.
Five minutes from time, Simon Mignolet made a decent save from a Sam Vokes header, before James Milner was brought on to replace Lallana. Burnley were pushing their opponents back, and in the 88th minute, they got their reward. A hat-trick of defensive failures saw Oxlade-Chamberlain allow a cross to be put in from the touchline, Klavan lose the aerial duel, and Gomez fail to track his man at the back post, allowing Johann Gudmundsson to dive in and head home from a few yards out. Heads dropped in the stadium and at home, as it looked certain the Reds were going to drop points from a winning position for the 7th time this season.
For the second time in three days, however, Klopp’s men rejected the narrative, and found a way to win. Four minutes into injury time, Oxlade-Chamberlain placed a free kick deep into the Burnley box, where Dejan Lovren won the header. His flick was likely goalbound regardless, but from six inches out — and possibly an offside position — Ragnar Klavan dove in and headed home the winner with his — and Estonia’s — first ever Premier League goal.
An ugly goal provided Liverpool with an ugly win from an ugly game. Nonetheless, that’s three wins in a row, an unbeaten streak that stretches over sixteen matches in ten weeks, and the Reds moving to within a point of second placed Chelsea. Just as crucially, it’s a win that rejects the narrative suggesting Liverpool are front runners who deal poorly with adversity, which should provide inspiration for fans and players alike the next time they suffer a setback.
Finally, it’s proof that even when three of the fab four are missing, Jürgen Klopp’s charges are capable of strong-arming a result and a win. A Merseyside derby in the FA Cup on Friday is up next, before the Reds will get a welcome nine-day rest ahead of their clash with Pep Guardiola’s champions elect, Manchester City.