West Bromwich Albion 2 Livermore 78’, Rondon 88’
Liverpool 2 Ings 4’, Salah 72’
Despite the temptation to view this match as a formality on the cusp of Liverpool’s opening match against Roma in their Champions League semi-final tie, the truth of the matter is Liverpool still needed five points from their remaining matches in order to ensure Champions League football next season. Against the side mired at the bottom of the table, hopes were high that Liverpool could take another significant step forward, but a number of factors led to a stumble today.
First, a roll of the dice by Jürgen Klopp in anticipation of next week’s exertions: three of the usual back four were dropped, making way for Joe Gomez, Alberto Moreno, and Ragnar Klavan. Up front, Mohamed Salah would have an opportunity to add to his goal tally, while Danny Ings came in for Roberto Firmino. The midfield trio featured a number of by-now familiar faces in Jordan Henderson, James Milner, and Georginio Wijnaldum.
The hosts, for their part, were staring relegation in the face - a fate that would be confirmed with a loss against Liverpool today combined with the right (or wrong, depending on your perspective) results tomorrow for the other sides scrapping at the bottom of the heap. Darren Moore has conjured a sense of urgency and discipline since assuming the caretaker role, and his starters commenced proceedings showing no small amount of resolve and fearlessness.
There was still plenty of threat in this Klopp side, despite the reshuffled lineup, and there was an early opportunity fashioned by Henderson, whose alert pass found a lurking Milner, looking to set up his forwards, and the sequence allowed the visitors to seize the first corner of the match. Another corner followed, and this time, Mané carried the ball into the box before finding Wijnaldum in the middle. The midfielder took one touch to tee up Ings, and the injury-plagued striker gleefully accepted the gift, smashing home from close range and wheeling away ecstatically.
Despite conceding, West Brom were far from cowed, and the early tea leaves suggested a long day at the office for Virgil van Dijk and Klavan, who would have to be on top of their game against a physical, aggressive side. The hosts pressed diligently, increasingly encouraged by Stuart Attwell’s apparent unwillingness to blow the whistle. In possession, West Brom had some early success seizing on second balls following lobs from deep.
Liverpool found themselves unable to play their usual game. The fullbacks Moreno and Gomez, showing no small amount of rust after their lengthy absences from first team action, were fully preoccupied and had few opportunities to surge forward in support. On the rare occasions when they did so, both created anything of note from the flanks, and as the game wore on, it seemed Klopp’s midfielders were reluctant to use the fullbacks as options.
Gomez in particular struggled to do for Salah what Trent Alexander-Arnold has been accustomed to doing for some time now. The occasional defensive lapses didn’t help his confidence.Just after the half-hour mark, the young English defender ceded the ball carelessly to Rondon, and there could have been serious problems for Liverpool had Gomez not raced back to rectify the error and force a corner instead.
This marked the beginning of a good sequence for West Brom, and signalled that the bottom-placed side would not be rolling over for Liverpool. The hosts forced corner after corner, each delivered with menace, but somehow eluding that one touch that would allow Moore’s side to equalize. Karius did not particularly distinguish himself during this sequence either, but could perhaps argue that his replacement defenders were getting bullied across the goalmouth.
In the closing phases of the first half, another excellent move from West Brom saw McLean lash a cross in from the left that eluded Liverpool’s defenders and goalkeeper, but the ball was just tantalizingly out of Jay Rodriguez’s reach. The visitors were struggling to shake off West Brom’s press, and going forward, Mané and Salah seemed uncharacteristically out of sync. There was a brief flash of danger when Gomez was able to find Salah in the box, and the loose ball tumbled to Ings, but Foster was quick to smother. The Reds were fortunate to go into the interval with a one goal advantage.
There were no changes at the half by either side, and the final 45 minutes of the match continued in the same vein as the first. West Brom pressed intelligently, sensing vulnerability. Liverpool, for their part, struggled to find fluidity in transition, and it didn’t help that the flanks had ceased to be viable outlets. It was a stop-start, messy affair.
With just under a half hour remaining, Klopp had had enough. On came Roberto Firmino and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, while Ings and Mané left the field. The introduction of Oxlade-Chamberlain injected some much needed directness and vitality to the side. Almost immediately, the hosts struggled to adapt to the revamped midfield.
The reshuffle paid dividends just minutes later. The newly-introduced Firmino and Oxlade-Chamberlain seized possession and pivoted quickly forwards. Oxlade-Chamberlain led the charge, drawing defenders before threading a pass through traffic to find Salah on the left. With Foster swooping in, the Egyptian made no mistake, deftly chipping the ball over the keeper to notch his 41st of the season. Finally, some breathing room.
It was not to last, however. There was one last move from Klopp, bringing Lovren on to help fortify things at the back, but before that, a goalmouth scramble permitted Livermore the opportunity to bundle the ball past Karius and halve the advantage. Sensing the chance to get something out of this match, West Brom swarmed forward at every opportunity. Attwell, not having the best day after missing a blatant punch by Hegazi on a prone Ings, compounded Liverpool supporters’ frustrations by awarding a free kick for a coming-together by Henderson and a West Brom player.
Though Liverpool have shown much stouter defending against set-pieces since the arrival of Van Dijk, there was a brief flashback to less happier times. The delivery from the left was excellent, and the collective concentration on Liverpool’s part, less than ideal, as Rondon found the space to equalize. That’s how it ended, and Liverpool leave themselves still looking for four points from the remaining three matches. But first, there’s Roma to deal with.