Liverpool 1 - 1 Leicester
Despite a line-up loaded with attacking talent, the Reds failed to capitalise on their early goal, and — with the help of a feckless refereeing display from Martin Atkinson — dropped two points in a match that would have put daylight between them and Manchester City in second.
Heads were scratched when Jürgen Klopp dropped his starting line-up ahead of the game, and speculation was rife that the German — currently missing his first, second and third choice right-backs — would go three at the back to open a game for the first time in his Liverpool career.
He didn’t, of course, playing nine of ten outfield players in their best position, while Jordan Henderson lined up at right fullback. Naby Keita and Georginio Wijnaldum formed a double pivot, while Xherdan Shaqiri supported the regular front three of Sadio Mane, Roberto Firimino and Mohamed Salah.
The hosts got off to a flying start and after two minutes and one second the ball was in the back of the net. After a 29-pass attacking move that lasted nearly two minutes, Robertson found Mané in the box, and the Senegalese attacker jinked inside to slide a curled effort into the bottom corner past a helpless Kasper Schmeichel.
Three minutes later, Firmino brought the ball down in the box and cut inside Ricardo Pereira, but the Brazilian’s strike was pushed wide for a corner. Mané rose to meet the ensuing set-piece, but despite being left entirely unmarked eight yards out, was unable to direct his header on target.
The Reds looked to be sending a message to their title rivals, but soon eased off the throttle, content to stroke the ball around without risking too much going forward. Leicester found their footing and began pressing their hosts, forcing Alisson into a sloppy pass from the back. James Maddison threw himself to the ground as he went past Henderson, but was rightly waved back to his feet.
Minutes later, the Brazilian goalkeeper lapsed again, this time delaying his clearance until Jamie Vardy got too close. The ball struck the forward’s foot and deflected to Marc Albrighton, who found Maddison wide open in front of goal. The former Liverpool target continued his career-long streak of never having scored a header, however, and missed the open goal entirely.
After a dubious offside call on Mané denied Salah an open goal, Harry Maguire took matters into his own hands a few minutes later, dragging the Senegalese attacker down as he was about to break through the defense and latch onto Wijnaldum’s pass. Referee Martin Atkinson could, and probably should, have showed the Englishman the red card, having hauled down an attacker as the last man, but as he is wont to do, Atkinson failed to make the right call.
It would prove decisive as well, as Maguire equalised five minutes later. A needless challenge from Andrew Robertson handed the Foxes a free kick near the Reds box, and despite dealing with both the original delivery and the second ball, the home side were unable to keep track of the big defender at the back post as Ben Chilwell’s header came into the area, allowing Maguire to side-foot home.
The second half began as the first had ended, with Leicester in the ascendancy and the Reds struggling to produce offense. An offsides Maguire popped up at the back post once more, and his header across the box was nearly turned in by Firmino, but Alisson was on hand to block his compatriot’s unfortunate toe poke.
On the hour mark, Atkinson was handed the opportunity to make up for his first-half mistake, but again failed to make the correct call. This time, Keïta played a one-two with Mané and raced into the box, but was cut down by Pereira just as he was about to take the shot. It was a blatant foul, a clear penalty, and would have ended Pereira’s night early with a second booking, but the referee shambolically waved play on.
Fabinho and Adam Lallana replaced Keïta and Shaqiri, while the visitors produced one last bit of danger before battening down the hatches. Demarai Gray streaked down the left side on the counter, but sent a soft shot straight at Alisson instead of finding the wide open Maddison in front of goal, to the home fans relief.
At the other end, the hosts began to ramp up the pressure on a tiring Leicester side, and Firmino went close once more, bringing the ball down in the box and unleashing a powerful drive on goal, but the shot was too close to the goalkeeper, and no Red was able to get on the rebound. It was only Liverpool’s second shot since the sixth minute, and it was clear something would have to change if three points were to be salvaged.
Despite an increase in pressure, however, the home side were held to two headers, from Joël Matip and Sadio Mané, none of which troubled Schmeichel, and time ran out with the scores level.
Claude Puel has been a thorn in the side of top sides in general and Liverpool in particular in the past, and proved so again tonight, masterminding a tremendous defensive performance that held the lethal Reds frontline to very few chances, while remaining dangerous on the counter.
Jürgen Klopp may be missing defenders, but it was in attack his team sputtered tonight, and while leading the league by five points at this stage of the season is an outstanding achievement, he would have preferred it to be seven, and will undoubtedly want his front three to recover their form by the time they travel to West Ham on Monday.