This legendary title race just keeps chugging along. Manchester City eased some of the pain from their Champions League exit by shutting out Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday, reclaiming the lead in the league table. Once again, the pressure was handed off to Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool, who had to travel to relegation-threatened Cardiff City with absolutely no margin for error.
With some serious momentum now building, Liverpool are - at this stage of the season - showing the kind of resolve and determination that makes them a tricky customer for anyone in the the major European leagues, much less a Cardiff side with a woeful record this campaign against the top six sides in the table. But Cardiff didn’t have to win to get something out of this match, and Neil Warnock’s side knew it.
Unlike other forays against less-than-heralded competition in recent times, Liverpool showed a good balance of aggression and patience in the first half, despite coming away empty-handed. The Reds weathered some good possession by the hosts at the beginning of the second half, before landing the first punch via a corner and a thundering Gini Wijnaldum finish. James Milner’s penalty later in the match sealed the deal.
Winners and Losers
Midfield Fans. Fabinho started this match of the bench, paving the way for Jordan Henderson, Naby Keïta, and Gini Wijnaldum to get some quality time together on the pitch. It hasn’t always clicked in the middle of the park for Liverpool this year, so it was quite encouraging to see this particular trio assert their authority away from Anfield. All three were lively on and off the ball, working hard to frustrate the hosts while also showing an eagerness to drive straight at Cardiff’s heart when given the opportunity.
Manchester United. Fresh off a humbling and slightly surprising 4-0 drubbing at Everton’s hands, Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s side will return home and prepare for their neighbors to visit Old Trafford. With the pressure back on them after today’s result, Pep Guardiola’s charges will almost certainly be laser-focused on getting the job done midweek. Liverpool have an interest in this Manchester derby, of course, but the bloom is very much off Solskjær’s rose at the moment, and things do not bode well for United’s top four push.
Joël Matip. It wasn’t that long ago when, with Joe Gomez out of the picture, Dejan Lovren was presumed to be the preferred partner to Virgil van Dijk. With Lovren also absent for spells this year, Matip has quietly undermined those assumptions. His adventurousness is typically what catches the eye, but Matip has also been a fuss-free and solid defensive contributor alongside the more visible Van Dijk. His man-of-the-match performance against Cardiff will not have surprised those who have been keeping an eye on Liverpool’s central defenders.
Sean Morrison. The Cardiff defender somehow contrived to fluff his header in front of an open goal (an Alisson fingertip may have been a factor here), spurning what was likely the hosts’ best opportunity of the match. He then was adjudicated to have fouled Mo Salah in the box, conceding the crucial penalty that allowed Liverpool enough breathing room to put this match to bed.
Dissecting the Narrative
The implications of this result for the title race are clear, but also somewhat mundane. Liverpool were expected to get the three points today, despite circumstances suggesting that this might have been a “trap” fixture for the Reds. The narrative was always going to be about whether or not Manchester City slipped up, and Guardiola’s side next potential banana peel will be the Manchester Derby.
Taking the focus off the title race for a moment, one encouraging takeaway from this match for Liverpool supporters should be the continued effectiveness of the midfield. There have been numerous different permutations this season, and they have mostly hovered around being “adequate”. Lately, we’ve been seeing them do a little better than adequate, and Henderson’s license to get into forward positions more frequently has been a part of that.
It has also helped that Keïta may finally be feeling comfortable enough to replicate his performances in the Bundesliga. With Fabinho and Milner on the bench, Keïta seemingly was everywhere during the first half. If he can keep this up, Liverpool’s prospects for some silverware this season might just have gotten a little brighter.
In 70 minutes Keïta had:— AudunMan (@AudunMan) April 21, 2019
2 key passes
Another terrific all round performance
How The Fans Reacted
For some completely inexplicable reason, several pundits gravitated towards the penalty decision as something to bleat about. The fact that Morrison was completely draped around Salah seems to not have been in doubt, but Salah having “gone down easily” seems to somehow have negated the fact that bear hugging your opponent is a foul. Judge for yourself:
It’s soft and Salah exaggerates it but this is a penalty. Morrison has to know better than to be all over him like that. https://t.co/jxSZkakCJA— Joshua Jones (@joshuapsjones) April 21, 2019
Gary Neville, not necessarily the most-beloved pundit among Liverpool supporters, took issue with the penalty decision, leading to reactions such as these:
Gary Neville: “Nah it’s not really a penalty, he hardly touched him”— Stanley House (@StanleyHouseLFC) April 21, 2019
Morrison marking Salah: pic.twitter.com/LvfwrKVtHr
What Happens Next
Liverpool will host last-placed Huddersfield at Anfield on Friday. By that point, we will all know whether or not Manchester United will have defied expectations by getting anything from their local rivals. We sort of already know right now, but hope springs eternal. And if Solskjær can’t get the job done, maybe Brendan Rodgers might. If he does, I say give him an invitation to the parade.