Liverpool 2 Sheff Utd 1: Firmino and Jota on target for Reds who fight back from behind after rare away Anfield penalty
STRANGE as it may seem, Jurgen Klopp may well look back on this as a decisive day in the title race.
He probably won’t think so in the morning, edging past a side Liverpool were expected to swat aside without breaking sweat.
Yet after the last couple of weeks the champions have suffered in the defence of their crown, anything will do right now.
And if that means a Diogo Jota header was the only difference between them in the end, then fair enough.
Especially on the back of Manchester City dropping two points in a game they, too, were supposed to stroll and another would-be challenger in Chelsea doing the same.
And with Klopp confident – well let’s be honest, we all are – that it’s only a matter of time before they hit top gear, then who cares how they get the points?
Yet you cannot stress enough how much of a scrap this was. Then again, little has been that straightforward this time around for Liverpool.
Not even with the colossal and calming presence of Alisson back in goal, recovered from the training ground shoulder injury which has kept him out of the past three games.
For all the lamenting Virgil van Dijk’s absence, the Kop keeper’s presence is arguably just as vital at the back. Certainly compared to his stand-in.
Put it this way, in the last nine games with back-up Adrian, the champions conceded nine goals. Last term it took them 28 – until February – to leak that many when Alisson was there.
Just the Blades’ luck then that he was back from his shoulder injury tonight. Just what you want when you’ve arrived in Merseyside on the back of a Premier League low of two goals this season.
Yet it took little more than ten minutes to leave those who reckoned Alisson was in for a low-key return with a face as red as the home side’s shirts.
Not that you could blame him for it, though. Any finger pointing was directed at Fabinho, the man who filled in for Van Dijk so majestically in the midweek Euro win at Ajax.
Yet if he was imperious in Amsterdam, he was erratic at Anfield when his initial clearance pinballed back off John Lundstram and the stand-gap centre-back lunged at Oli McBurnie.
Referee Mike Dean’s first instinct was a free-kick on the edge of the box, but VAR official Andre Marriner ruled it was right on the line – in other words, a penalty.
After the ciggie paper’s width offside call to deny them a winner at Goodison a week ago, it was another decision down to millimetres which left Liverpool cursing.
And up stepped Sander Berge to roll the spot kick just right of centre when Alisson dived the other way.
Yet for a team which views conceding a corner, never mind a goal, on their own patch as worthy of an inquest, it was surely no more than a speed bump.
After all, they could already have been a couple up by then, notably from Trent Alexander-Arnold’s breathtaking halfway line free-kick which had Aaron Ramsdale scurrying to tip over.
John Egan had needed equally smart reactions to stop Mo Salah having a tap-in after Sadio Mane clipped one past the Blades keeper when he left his goal unguarded with a dash out.
Yet we know how much Chris Wilder’s men love tearing up scripts. They ripped up plenty last season, when they made a habit of smacking glamorous backsides.
And for all there was plenty of backs-to-the-wall stuff for the Blades, it was actually they who went closest to a second goal as well. Twice.
First McBurnie could only find a powder puff finish totally at odds with his let’s-have-it character when clean through on the left, rolling a tame effort wide.
You couldn’t level the same at wing-back Ben Osborn, who met right-sided counterpart George Baldock’s cross-field ball full on the volley, which stung Alisson’s palms.
It clearly did the same to the rest of those in red, who finally began to click into gear, even though it did take until five minutes before the break to haul themselves level.
Jordan Henderson picked out Mane with a superb first-time side-footed sweep into the box, only for Ramsdale to somehow push out his point-blank header.
But as majestic as the save was, it was pretty much irrelevant as Roberto Firmino tapped in from a yard.
So there you had it. Parity reached, normal service resumed… and the relentless rumbling of the march towards another three points.
With Liverpool camped out in the opposition half – one deflected George Baldock drive aside – you’d have expected as much, certainly.
Salah curled a shot wide, Andy Robertson had another fizzer blocked, another Henderson eye-of-the-needle delivery was just ahead of Mane.
But whereas last year was a stroll, this one is already more of a squeaky-bum stumble…and tonight was no different.
One lazy moment from Alisson was straight from the Adrian textbook and nearly opened the door, while substitute Oliver Burke had hearts in mouths with two piledrivers.
In the end they got away with it. Klopp will need to be right about that improvement because that won’t always be the case.
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