Liverpool 3 Mane 7’, Salah 69’ , Firmino 90’
After a week or so with supporters’ minds dominated by the titanic Champions League tie with Manchester City, Liverpool returned their attention to the no less important task of securing a fourth-place-or-better finish this season. Despite a remaining schedule that doesn’t look particular daunting, the Reds know that you still have to play the matches, and nothing is guaranteed. Certainly not against Eddie Howe’s Bournemouth side, who definitely have it in them to spring surprises.
Perhaps wise to the threat, Jürgen Klopp’s side raced out of the blocks from the opening whistle, showing no interest in conserving energy. Bournemouth, without being totally rattled, were still noticeably on the back foot, and there was an early scare for them in the opening minutes, as a laser of a pass from Trent Alexander-Arnold, deep on the right, found Mohamed Salah in the box, with defenders scurrying to close. The visitors would breathe a sigh of relief as the shot was marginally wide.
Their relief was to be short-lived. In the 7th minute, with Bournemouth packed in the box and making no effort to close down Jordan Henderson, the Liverpool captain had plenty of time to pick out Sadio Mané. The first-time header was just about parried by Begovic, but Mané was there to seize upon the rebound, and this time the Bournemouth keeper was helpless to stop the Senegalese winger from giving Liverpool the lead.
Despite conceding, Bournemouth refused to completely topple over. Forced to chase the game a little bit more, they remained well-organized and stout without the ball, while looking to Fraser and Ibe - operating a bit more centrally - to relieve the pressure and provide some threat on the other end. It was very much a bend-don’t-break approach, and it just about worked during the balance of the first half.
Liverpool controlled the proceedings without fashioning the kind of goalscoring flurry that has overwhelmed some other sides this season. Salah took up residence in central positions more often than we are accustomed to seeing from him, and elsewhere Andy Robertson and Alexander-Arnold showed no lapse in quality or energy since their heroic performances against City in the Champions League, driving things forward from the wings.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was yet another player who caught the eye in that first half, providing that central impetus that nobody else in that midfield is really capable of replicating. He and Mané looked the liveliest during the early exchanges, with the latter showing no signs of the indecision that had temporarily crept into his game months ago. Mané almost doubled his tally by picking up an over-the-top ball from Henderson - it wouldn’t be the last one from the captain this match - and fashioning a shooting opportunity from it, only to see the effort smothered.
Salah, oddly enough, looked the most off-pace of the forward trio, in part due to good work from Nathan Aké in the wake of that first goal. But the Egyptian forward may also have been guilty of letting that Golden Boot race play on his mind a bit, showing some uncharacteristically selfish decision-making during the moment where Liverpool might have been close to carving out a clear opportunity. His teammates were also happy to indulge him, but a series of half-chances went unconverted.
The Reds went into the interval with just the one goal lead, and there were no changes from either side at the restart. Continuing the trend from the first half, most of the football was being played just inside the visitors’ half, though Liverpool strained to reproduce the same degree of fluidity that they summoned during the initial half hour of the match. Still, the crosses from Robertson and Alexander-Arnold kept coming, though Begovic and Aké showed they were up to the task.
Just ten minutes into the half, Howe brought on Mousset for Jordon Ibe, more to switch up the type of threat posed rather than a clear shift in tactics. With the substitution, something of a fragile stalemate had been achieved, with Bournemouth showing a bit more discipline and composure without the ball, and the hosts conversely becoming somewhat more tentative.
There would be a breakthrough, but it wasn’t for Bournemouth. Almost inevitably, it was Mo Salah, coming alive in the 69th minute after being frustrated for long spells. Once again from deep on the right, Alexander Arnold, lofted a searching ball forward, looking for some daylight between Salah and Aké. There was just enough separation, and with his back almost to the keeper, the Egyptian headed the ball goalwards with just enough height on it to skate over a grasping Begovic. And just like that, Salah joined a very small and elite group of Liverpool players to have scored forty or more goals in a season.
The Salah goal appeared to briefly energize the Reds. Mané was picked out minutes later and his shot was just barely wide. Then, Oxlade-Chamberlain, showing great vision, found a surging Firmino on the counter, but the Brazilian took just a little bit too much time to shape for a shot, allowing Bournemouth’s defenders to recover and snuff out the danger.
In the final ten minutes or so of the match, the visitors crafted a decent spell of ascendancy, taking advantage of some lapses in Liverpool’s concentration and a momentary loss of coherence as James Milner, Ragnar Klavan, and Dominic Solanke were all called into action at various stages. And Howe’s men might have been able to get on the scoreboard, but for some heroic defending from Lovren and great reaction save from Karius to preserve the clean sheet.
In the final minute of regulation time, Liverpool had their third. Oxlade-Chamberlain, powering forward yet again, found Firmino to his left, and this time, the Brazilian made no mistake. The focus will inevitably shift to the Champions League again before too long, but it will be good to head into that part of the calendar with a firm grasp on a top four spot. That grasp became just a little bit more secure today.