Time wasting within the first 10 minutes. Kasper Schmeichel taking 30 seconds for every goal kick. Harry Maguire not giving the ball back after Mo Salah’s equaliser. Wilfried N’Ddidi kicking the ball into the corner flag rather than back to Loris Karius as is conventional practice. Leicester fans ringing out the old “Feed the Scousers” chant, because poverty and hunger is absolutely hilarious and something to mock. Then the Steven Gerrard songs.
Liverpool were having none of it. Here, there was an absolute collective refusal among the players, the manager and, crucially, the Anfield crowd (with a certain £75 million Dutchman in attendance) to let Leicester walk away with anything from the game. These were Liverpool’s three points.
All across the pitch there was a willingness to fight, to scrap, to battle for 90 minutes against a side who are probably the best of the rest outside the top six in this league. Even when Joel Matip’s careless loose pass gifts Jamie Vardy the chance to open the scoring just three minutes in, there was always a sense that Liverpool could claw this one back. The players sensed it, the crowd sensed it. They drove each other on.
It was perhaps the clearest example this season of why Jürgen Klopp puts so much emphasis on the role of a positive atmosphere in shaping what happens on the pitch. The contrast with the 0-0 draw against West Brom, for instance, was stark. That day, the mood in the stands was toxic. Fans slating their own players, spreading anxiety and impatience throughout the stadium. Not this time.
Against Leicester, all the vitriol was directed at Leicester and the referee, as it should be. Rather than moaning at Loris Karius, the crowd were vociferous in their howling and hissing at Schmeichel’s blatant attempts to run the clock down and the referee’s endorsement of that in refusing to take any kind of action.
Conceding the early goal galvanized, rather than knocked Liverpool’s confidence. The players continually surged forward, carving out openings, putting doubt into the Leicester collective mindset. Sadio Mané has two goals ruled offside and Salah misses a couple of very presentable opportunities, but rather than feel sorry for themselves and accept another “one of those days”, Liverpool kept on going, kept showing an incessant belief and determination to turn the game round.
Eventually it came, seven minutes into the second-half, via a sublime backheel pass from Mané- a real moment of quality from a player you feel just needs a goal to regain his lost confidence of late. Salah, in the right place as ever, showed enormous composure and skill to dance his way past a multitude of blue shirts, biding his time until pulling the trigger and lashing the ball home past Schmeichel for the equaliser.
Such is the Egyptian’s self-assurance that missing chances never gets to him. He knows if he keeps putting himself in the right areas, he’ll stick one or two away. It’s a rare degree of mental strength which sets him apart from most players- aside from his phenomenal footballing ability. Salah came close to notching his second after looping a shot just over the bar from Philippe Coutinho’s dinked ball, which would have been a terrific goal had it nestled in the net.
Sure enough, he bagged the winner in remarkable fashion, spinning away from a helpless Maguire before cleverly slotting the finish at the near post for his 23rd of the season. It wasn’t even a half-chance, but the sheer physical strength for a player which such a low sense of gravity and close ball control makes it almost impossible for defenders to cope with, as Maguire found out in humiliating fashion. There are very few players in world football playing at this level at the moment.
Having fought their way into the lead, there was to be no late collapse this time as Liverpool demonstrated steel and grit in abundance to see the game out and protect those precious three points they’d fought so hard to earn. It was encapsulated by Emre Can hoofing the ball into the corner- just as Ndid had done in the first half- to run the clock down late on. A gorgeous piece of snide play to give the visitors a piece of their own antics.
Despite a late aerial bombardment from a series of Christian Fuchs long throws, hurled menacingly into the box, Liverpool were able to stand firm and clear the danger. Dejan Lovren was robust and aggressive when he needed to be, as was the outstanding Joe Gomez who displayed composure and maturity of a consummate, seasoned professional, in his work both on and off the ball. Even Karius, who has so often been the target of mass-criticism, stood up to be counted and exhibited some excellent distribution to get his side quickly on the front foot, while also commanding his penalty area with great assurance.
This Liverpool side have repeatedly shown their capacity to steamroll teams by four or more goals this season. This kind of victory, however, comes with a special sense of satisfaction at having won both the sporting and psychological battle to overcome the early setback. This Leicester side might not be the league-winning outfit of a couple of years ago, but they do still possess real quality in attacking areas and always make it into a proper contest.
Liverpool were up to the task, however, and demonstrated character, grit and determination in bucketloads to ensure their current surge of momentum continues into the new year, with a squad now well-equipped to navigate January much more successfully than last season.
This was the perfect way to sign off 2017- a year of ups and downs- but, undoubtedly, one of significant and sustainable progress for Liverpool.