Stuart James at Molineux @StuartJamesGNM
Fri 21 Dec 2018 21.58 GMT
The presents have come early this year for Liverpool, who can look forward to spending Christmas Day enjoying the view from the top of the Premier League table. The good news is that the team in that position in eight of the previous nine seasons has gone on to win the league. The bad news is that Liverpool, back in 2013-14, were the one club to come up short.
Not that this Liverpool team is likely to be burdened by the past. Jürgen Klopp has assembled a formidable side and victories such as this one will do nothing to dampen the belief that Liverpool are authentic title challengers and capable of stretching Manchester City in a way that would have been unthinkable for anyone last season.
Liverpool have now recorded seven successive top-flight games, their unbeaten Premier League run stretches to 19 matches, and when Klopp spoke afterwards about possibly needing as many as 105 points to win the title, it did not seem outlandish to imagine his team finishing the season with that sort of haul.
Mohamed Salah is the Premier League’s top scorer once again, after taking his tally for the season to 11 with an exquisite goal, and the Egyptian also set up Liverpool’s second. Virgil van Dijk, with his first goal for the club since he scored on his debut against Everton in the FA Cup, converted Salah’s cross and it was particularly impressive to see the way in which Liverpool closed the game down thereafter.
Klopp used the word “mature” to describe Liverpool’s performance and that captured it perfectly. They had a slightly difficult period towards the end of the first half, when Wolves started to take control of the game for the first time, but otherwise this was a highly professional Liverpool display, with Van Dijk’s commanding presence at the heart of the defence every bit as impressive as Salah’s beautiful touches at the other end of the pitch.
Wolves have proved to be awkward opponents this season, beating Chelsea and taking points off both Manchester clubs as well as Arsenal, yet their hopes of recording a first victory over Liverpool at Molineux since 1981, when Mark Lawrenson and Bruce Grobbelaar were making their debuts, looked slim from the moment that Salah opened the scoring.
The goal was simple enough in its construction – Fabinho played a one-two with Sadio Mané on the right flank – but it was exquisitely finished by Salah. He was standing almost sideways on when he nonchalantly flicked Fabinho’s cross beyond Rui Patricio with the outside of his left boot from about eight yards.
From Wolves’ point of view it was a disappointing goal to concede. Up until that point they had soaked up plenty of Liverpool possession without being cut open.
Ruben Neves, however, switched off and failed to track Fabinho on the edge of his own penalty area, enabling the midfielder to run in behind unopposed. Fabinho’s centre was perfect and what followed was a moment of class from Salah.
The goal felt a little harsh on Wolves, who had carried the greater attacking threat in the early stages, even if Liverpool were seeing much more of the ball. Adama Traoré saw one shot saved and dragged another wide, and Alisson denied Romain Saiss following a lovely Wolves move that saw Conor Coady release Matt Doherty with a raking diagonal pass.
Salah’s goal four minutes later could easily have discouraged Wolves but, to their credit, the home team continued to attack with conviction. Allison kept out Jonny Castro’s effort, following a neat exchange between Saiss and Traoré, and Doherty had claims for a penalty turned down when his sinuous run into the Liverpool area was brought to a halt by James Milner.
As much as Wolves were playing well, chasing a game against this Liverpool team is far from ideal and it was no real surprise when the visitors extended their lead midway through the second half. By that point Liverpool were looking more and more comfortable. Jordan Henderson, who was making his 300th Liverpool appearance, and Fabinho were dictating the game from their deep-lying midfield positions – this was the first time the two have started together – and Wolves’ attacking threat had diminished.
Van Dijk had the measure of Traore – the Dutchman even managed to match the forward for pace in a fascinating duel close to the touchline just after the hour mark – and Nuno Espírito Santo, the Wolves manager, found himself in that difficult position whereby he needed to make changes to try to force an equaliser but knew that by doing so there was a danger Liverpool would add a second.
That is exactly what happened. Adam Lallana, on for the injured Naby Keita, saw his close-range effort blocked after Salah and Mané combined, and Liverpool profited from the corner that followed. Saiss’s clearance dropped for Salah, who was loitering on the edge of the area, and his perfectly flighted cross picked out Van Dijk, who coolly volleyed home from just inside the six-yard box. Georginio Wijnaldum could and should have added a third in stoppage time after another Salah raid.
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