Liverpool get out of jail as Alderweireld’s late own goal earns victory over Spurs
Daniel Taylor at Anfield
Sun 31 Mar 2019 18.52 BST
The clock was seconds away from the 90-minute mark when the final, decisive blow sparked euphoric scenes at Anfield. Liverpool were a few minutes of stoppage-time away from a result that – who knows? – could have been a grievous setback. But then the ball was aimed high towards Mohamed Salah at the far post and what happened next, put bluntly, changed everything.
Suddenly it did not seem quite so important that Salah had played so far below his point of maximum expression. Hugo Lloris, who can be surprisingly error-prone for a World Cup-winning goalkeeper, had not been able to hold on to his header. The ball came off his hands, bounced against Toby Alderweireld, the nearest defender, and started trickling towards the goal-line, almost in slow motion.
Alderweireld still had the opportunity to save himself but, in his desperation to recover, he managed only to stub his toe into the ground and kick at fresh air. How important might this own goal be for Liverpool in their attempts to see off Manchester City at the top of the Premier League? It was the same goal where Jordan Pickford had presented Liverpool with a stoppage-time goal wrapped in blue ribbons during the Merseyside derby. And, again, it finished with the now-familiar sight of Jürgen Klopp pumping his fists and flashing those expensive-looking teeth in front of the Kop.
Every team that finishes as champions needs a bit of luck along the way and Liverpool certainly had it here, bearing in mind the additional drama a few minutes earlier when Moussa Sissoko and Son Heung-min sprung a two-on-one breakaway. Fortunately for Liverpool the one they had back was Virgil van Dijk, who concluded it would be better to let Sissoko take aim and blocked out the pass rather than going for the tackle. It was a brilliant decision. Sissoko’s shot was wild and high when, at that stage, another goal for Spurs would have left City with an opportunity to go four points clear by winning their game in hand, at home to Cardiff City, on Wednesday.
No wonder Anfield celebrated as it did when Alderweireld’s misfortune meant a very different scenario: Liverpool two points clear. For Klopp and his players, it was almost imperative they won this second-versus-third encounter. More than that they needed to demonstrate they were in the right frame of mind for whatever comes next. They managed to do that, eventually – but, boy, they toyed with the emotions of their supporters before everything fell into place. Until that point the second half, for Liverpool, was shaping up to become an ordeal.
As for Salah, the irony is that he, more than anyone, seemed to be afflicted by what this means for Liverpool and the responsibility, perhaps, that falls on himself. Salah has not scored for eight games, which represents his longest drought in Liverpool’s colours by some distance. If anything, he seemed too keen to put that right, meaning there was a hint of desperation about his play, especially in those moments after Lucas Moura had turned in a 70th-minute equaliser for Spurs. As it turned out, Salah still managed to have a decisive role. Once the jubilation subsides, however, the point remains: if Liverpool are to win the league for the first time since 1990, they desperately need him to get whatever is troubling him out of his system.
Not that it particularly mattered in the first half when, as Andrew Robertson put it afterwards, Liverpool “blew away” their opponents – not least because Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold, Liverpool’s other full-back, were often operating as auxiliary wingers. It was such a problem for Spurs that Lucas, who was primarily playing as Harry Kane’s strike partner, spent long spells doubling up as a left-sided midfielder to restrict the space for Alexander-Arnold. Still, though, the right-back took it on himself to have a prominent role in Liverpool’s attack while, on the other side, it was Robertson’s inclination to do likewise, 16 minutes in, that led to Roberto Firmino heading in the opening goal.
Robertson’s delivery was so inviting it would have been almost impertinent for the Brazilian to pass up the chance. Lloris was at fault to some degree again with a poorly aimed kick that was intercepted by Georginio Wijnaldum inside the Tottenham half, and Kieran Trippier committed the full-back’s sin of standing off Robertson, allowing the left-back to line up the trajectory of his cross without anybody closing him down. Firmino had found a gap between two of the opposition’s three centre-halves. Robertson’s cross picked him out superbly and Firmino flashed his header past Lloris.
Bad as Tottenham’s record is on this ground, with only one win now in the last 25 visits, Mauricio Pochettino’s side needed only a draw to register their best points total from the Premier League era after 31 matches played.
They could also be encouraged by some erratic moments from Alisson. Yet it must have been concerning for Pochettino that his players could not do more in the first half to examine the Liverpool goalkeeper. Dele Alli was not influencing the game in the way that would usually be expected of him. The same applied to Christian Eriksen and it was rare to see Harry Kane being so ineffective. Something had to change and Pochettino acted at half-time by instructing Danny Rose to take up a more advanced position, with Jan Vertonghen taking up the left-back role. Pochettino, serving his touchline ban, was in contact with his coaching staff via a mobile telephone from the stand and, if nothing else, he saw a significant improvement from his team. Still, though, this is their worst run of results under his management.
The equaliser for Spurs came after a quickly taken free-kick from Kane out to Trippier on the right. Trippier played the ball inside to Eriksen, who did the same, albeit with a miscue, for Lucas to run in and score from eight yards.
After that Liverpool had to go for a winner, knowing a draw was not enough for their ambitions, and that explains why they were so open at the back during a nerve-shredding finale. Sissoko let them off the hook and then, finally, the ball was aimed towards Salah – and the 18-times league champions had their biggest stroke of luck yet.
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Mo Salah speaks
“Normally I stay outside the box on corners but I followed my intuition and went inside. I have to wait to see if the Premier League give me the goal. [They haven’t.] We got the three points, that’s the most important thing. I don’t care about the goal. There are some players with the same number of goals as me and they are having the best season of my life, and I’m supposed to be having a bad season. I want to win the Premier League; that’s the most important thing for me. The atmosphere was crazy and the fans help us a lot. They are desperate to win the league and we will do everything to make that happen.”
It’s worth remembering the majestic, Beckenbaurian piece of defending from Virgil van Dijk, who showed the cool certainty of a bomb-disposal expert when he was left alone facing Sissoko and Son with a few minutes remaining. Liverpool still needed Sissoko to blooter it into orbit, and he did that immaculately.