An opportunity missed or an effective free hit? Liverpool fans have been left with mixed emotions after watching their side struggle to a draw against Leicester yet extend their lead over Manchester City in the process.
The Reds had looked on course to breeze to a seven-point margin after Sadio Mane curled them in front in the third minute and they proceeded to totally dominate the first quarter of the contest.
But with halftime beckoning, they were made to pay for a lapse in concentration as Harry Maguire, in acres of space, slotted past Alisson.
The stage was set for the home side to rally just as they had done against Crystal Palace, but in truth, a gut-wrenching Leicester winner looked more likely for much of the second period.
The result itself was only a minor setback, but the performance has left supporters with cause for concern.
Anxiety creeps in as pressure mounts
Liverpool had seriously wobbled against Palace, with Wilfried Zaha & co. striking perceptible fear into the backline as they countered with pace and intent. Helped by a deflected strike and inexplicable goalkeeping error, they just about managed to get the job done.
A more authoritative performance was expected here against a struggling Leicester side with a manager fighting for his job. But City’s defeat yesterday turned this game rather suddenly into a potentially defining chapter in the title race, and once again Liverpool, with the possibility of that elusive crown looming ever larger, looked nervous.
Mane’s early effort should have eased the jitters, but an atmosphere of uneasiness persisted in Anfield, and eventually, Leicester smelled blood and came barging out of their shell. The Foxes, for whom a mid-table berth is already assured, could play without fear, while the stakes were much higher for their opponents.
Liverpool’s game-management has been excellent at times but they failed to grab this one by the scruff of the neck. Composure in possession and in mind were lacking.
This evident apprehension is the most worrying takeaway. The tension is only going to be cranked up in the coming months, and Klopp’s men must prove they have the mettle to cope with it.
A defensive dip
Liverpool’s standard-setting backline has looked a shadow of its usual self in the last two matches. Injuries have, of course, played a significant part in that – the right-hand side of Klopp’s defence here comprised stand-in Joel Matip and makeshift full-back Jordan Henderson – but this time it was a struggle even for the usually faultless.
Alisson’s generally impeccable distribution was erratic, Virgil van Dijk was far from the commanding, reassuring presence with which we have become familiar and the ever-dependable Andrew Robertson was guilty of a needless challenge on Ricardo Pereira in the dying stages of the first half, which indirectly led to Maguire’s goal.
The freedom allowed the towering Englishman was inexplicable, particularly given that Liverpool’s set-piece defending, and their execution of the offside trap, has been largely excellent this season.
With Joel Matip failing to inspire any degree of confidence, fans are becoming increasingly desperate for Joe Gomez to make his comeback and reform what was a rock-solid partnership with van Dijk. Henderson did reasonably well on the right side of the four, but if anything he was missed in the middle of the park, a position to which he will return when Trent Alexander-Arnold recovers.
Liverpool need their best back five fit again and rattling off clean sheets again.
Blaming the referee can seem like a get out of jail free card for the underperforming players, but complaints are certainly warranted here.
Martin Atkinson cost Liverpool with two decisions. Goalscorer Maguire really ought to have been sent off when he pulled down Mane, who was about to race through on goal. That verdict could, in fairness, be contested, but the penalty denied Naby Keita was blatant. The midfielder was through and about to pull the trigger when a desperate Pereira stuck a leg out and tripped him.
He didn’t get a foot on the ball, he brought the man down. It was a clear spot-kick.
Liverpool mostly have themselves to blame, but they really could have done with the officials doing their job.
A lack of invention
It was a familiar scenario. The scores were level, and Liverpool were encountering a regimented defensive block. They’ve rehearsed this drill countless times.
But their approach bore disconcerting hallmarks of the 16/17 season when too often they were shackled by teams who parked the bus.
The key in such a situation is to move the ball quickly and to drag defenders out of position with clever runs. But the Reds were pedestrian and bereft of any real ideas, repeatedly working the ball out to the wing before whipping in a harmless cross. It’s what Leicester would have wanted.
The only real moment of inspiration came when Keita, in a burst of energy, played a neat one-two with Firmino and was denied a goal only by a foul.
In such circumstances, fans were left more hopeful than expectant. Liverpool weren’t knocking on the door. They had barely got onto the driveway.
Changes bring no change
Liverpool needed an injection of creativity or control from the bench, but the reinforcements were shown to be scant. Fabinho’s introduction did take the Reds up a level, but with Adam Lallana and Daniel Sturridge left to be the difference-makers, the outcome was inevitable.
Lallana didn’t do too much wrong, but he never looked like a potential matchwinner, and Sturridge’s only real contribution was a panicked lash over the crossbar. In truth, the frontman looks a spent force after his early-season resurgence. It would be no surprise to see Liverpool offload both come the summer.
Investment may be needed in that window to turn mere depth into true strength-in-depth. Liverpool’s bank of auxiliaries needs refreshing.
But onto the next one…
Title challenges are defined by responses to setbacks. And, though the Reds have ever-so-slightly more breathing space, this was indeed a setback, a chance squandered.
Liverpool’s lead may be cut down to two points by the time they face West Ham on Monday night, but with a gutsier performance and a return to winning ways, they can lay down a marker.