What looked on pace to be a rare comfortable away win turned into a periodically frustrating battle against a group of officials hellbent on making the match closer than it should have been, as Liverpool eventually ran out 2-0 winners against a largely overmatched Burnley side that look scheduled for a prompt return to the Championship.
There were plenty of positives to take away from the game, however, so below, we take a look at some of the winners and losers on the night.
Return of Diogoal: In a season where some of his striking partners have struggled with their efficiency, Diogo Jota has been the definition of clinical when he’s been able to get on the pitch. As the Reds looked to wrap up the game following a flurry of activity from what had seemed a Burnley team in late hibernation, chances to counter presented themselves, and while Luis Díaz and Mohamed Salah wasted good looks, the Portuguese forward made no such mistake, slotting the ball through the legs of James Trafford from an impossible angle to steal away all hope from the hosts.
The former Wolves man had been missing since suffering a hamstring injury against Manchester City a month ago, and his return to action will be a boon to a depleted Liverpool frontline, as the second half of a season in which every trophy remains on the table begins.
Young Trafford: Speaking of James Trafford, the cherubic goalkeeper had a hell of a game for the Clarets, racking up eight saves over the course of 90 minutes, including a reflexive tip over the bar as Mohamed Salah looked set to collect his 150th Premier League goal for the Reds.
The 21-year old has been on impressive form for Burnley this season, and could be in line for an England call-up — and a Premier League stay should his club get relegated — if he can maintain this level of performance through the spring.
Darwizzy: The Premier League leader in expected goals per 90 and shots off the woodwork finally scored again today, tucking an inch-perfect finish past three blockers and the keeper into the bottom corner from 20 yards, a finish infinitely more difficult that some of the ones he’s missed this season.
After a pair of performances out on the left wing, Darwin Núñez was back in the middle today — Cody Gakpo manned the left flank in the Coutinho-esque manner he used to for PSV — and the team looked much better for it. The Uruguayan got his goal in the sixth minute, nearly had an assist as he set up Salah a minute later, and continually displayed his improved hold-up play to go with the persistent vertical threat he provides.
If the Reds can get Darwin firing on all cylinders and at least match his expected numbers in the second half of the season, everything remains on the table for the club.
The Second Half: While the first half was a classroom example of press and possess dominance, with Liverpool racking up 14 shots and 69% possession, while giving up only two shots the other way, along with a mere three opposition touches in their own box, the second half showed sheer drop-off.
Between the 43rd and 83rd minute, the Reds produced zero shots, allowing Burnley to stay in the match and laying the groundwork for the near-comeback the hosts produced between the hour mark and the 80th minute, when they forced the Reds into consistent possession errors and missed two big chances.
It wasn’t entirely self-inflicted — and we’ll get to what I mean by that in a minute — but when gameplay dominance isn’t turned into a matching scoreline, maintaining focus and intensity is crucial, and it’s a thing this young team still needs to learn and apply with consistency.
Ti and Si: Goodness gracious what utter trash. Paul Tierney and Simon Hooper — who have a long and storied history of screwing Liverpool over and refereed the biggest VAR scandal in Premier League history, respectively — were atrocious today, conspiring to rule out two Liverpool goals, with the second being probably fine and the first being utterly inexplicable, completely disregarding an outrageous studs up, no-ball challenge on Ryan Gravenberch, and generally calling the game in a manner that suspiciously seemed to favour the home side time and again.
They didn’t end up affecting the outcome of the game in the end — though they came close — but with points getting dropped against both Arsenal and Man Utd as a direct effect of refereeing non-calls, faith in the officials is at something like an all-time low on Merseyside right now.
What Happens Next
The Reds have nearly a full week off, with a visit from struggling blood oil merchants Newcastle and their under-threat manager Eddie Howe on New Year’s day coming up. After that, a mid-week trip to London to take on Arsenal in the FA Cup 3rd round awaits.
For now, though, up the top of the table Reds!