Mohamed Salah penalty puts Liverpool seven points clear at the top
Liverpool did not sparkle here but, more importantly, nor did they wobble. After losing their unbeaten record to Manchester City they returned to winning ways thanks to a second-half penalty by Mohamed Salah. It was a narrow victory but one that restores Liverpool’s seven-point lead at the top of the Premier League and challenges City to close the gap again when they host Wolves .
Defeats in their two previous matches led to this being billed as a particularly revealing interrogation of Liverpool, with a team aspiring to be champions required to give persuasive answers. The questions ranged from the elementary to the tricky. Could Liverpool’s confidence really be so brittle that a narrow loss at City and a practically invited one at Wolves in the FA Cup would cause it to crumble despite half a season of domestic invincibility prior to that? Answer: No.
What about their ability to cope with the pressure of a title race when their closest rivals have undoubted pedigree? Their response was positive. They will be asked it again over the remaining 16 matches of the campaign.
And what of their depleted defence, which, owing to a spate of injuries, included the midfielder Fabinho here alongside Virgil van Dijk? When Trent Alexander-Arnold collapsed during the warm-up it looked like Jürgen Klopp would be forced into further improvisation but, after having his ankle strapped up, the right-back declared himself fit enough to play. He played well, as did Fabinho despite a lapse in the 15th minute that allowed Glenn Murray a free header from 12 yards. The striker sent his effort over the bar.
That was Brighton’s only chance in a first half when they spent most of the time entrenched behind the ball in a rigid 4-5-1 formation. This, then, was not a test of Liverpool’s makeshift defence as much as of their creativity. They flunked it in the first period but never lost patience.
Their play from the start was slow and predictable, almost entirely in front of the hosts. Many times this season there has been a disconnect between their defence and attack and usually Xherdan Shaqiri has helped bridge the gap, with Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum industrious but not ingenious.
Shaqiri started in a role that allowed him to flit about but he struggled to get involved, although he did have the visitors’ best chance in the first half, nodding wide from 10 yards after a cross from the right by Alexander-Arnold.
Liverpool’s full-backs were their most penetrative players, as Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané tended to get bogged down in overly intricate moves in congested central areas.
It would have been interesting to see at what stage Klopp might have varied the approach but, as it turned out, there was no need for him to do so because Brighton suddenly played into Liverpool’s hands. A mistake by Martin Montoya early in the second half presented them with an opportunity to launch the sort of rapid counterattack at which they excel. Salah needed no second invitation, hurtling into the box and letting fly with a low shot that David Button did well to hold.
Two minutes later, Pascal Gross made an even more costly blunder, oafishly fouling Salah in the box. “I feel for Pascal because Salah is probably the most dangerous player when he gets into those situations,” said Chris Hughton, who had no quibble with the decision to award a penalty. Salah’s conversion left no room for doubt, either, the Egyptian ramming the spot-kick beyond Button and into the corner of the net to claim his 14th league goal of the season.
The onus was on Brighton to vary their approach and subject Liverpool’s defence to a more vigorous test. Hughton made a double substitution in the 65th minute in an effort to give his team more attacking impetus, though the hosts never committed fully to attack.
“Brighton defended like they defended because they knew that one mistake from us and they were back in the game and not making a mistake is difficult,” said Klopp. “But we did it.”
With 20 minutes to go Jürgen Locadia cut in from the left to unload a 20-yard shot, possibly going wide, that Alisson pushed around the post. But that was as dangerous as Brighton got.
Liverpool found more vibrancy as the game loosened up and had chances to make their lead more comfortable in the 75th minute but Button batted away his swerving long-range shot. Wijnaldum then flashed a low shot inches wide from the edge of the box after a nimble build-up involving Salah, who missed a much better chance in the 87th minute, dragging a shot wide from seven yards after a pull-back by James Milner.
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