Amid accusations that Liverpool were beginning to buckle under the pressure of an intensifying title race, the Reds produced a determined and assured performance to overwhelm Bournemouth and regain top spot.
Sadio Mane’s fantastic header gave the home side the lead, but it was Georginio Wijnaldum’s delightful second which truly settled the nerves at Anfield and seemed to put the result beyond reasonable doubt.
Mohamed Salah then rounded off a stunning move with a well-taken third, and from that point, it became a question of how many, and it could well have been five or six.
Above all, it was the nature of the team‘s display which should really encourage supporters. In what was, from a psychological standpoint at least, a must-win game, Jurgen Klopp’s side were excellent to a man.
Goalkeeper Alisson Becker didn’t have to work too hard for a welcome clean sheet, and that, of course, is how it should be in these fixtures. Yet even when rarely called upon the Brazilian is able to show his quality. He completed more than 92% of his passes against the Cherries and found team-mates with all but two of his thumped long balls.
Centre-halves Joel Matip and Virgil van Dijk shielded his goal expertly. Matip was considerably more solid than in the previous two games, as he must continue to be during Dejan Lovren’s prolonged absence, while Van Dijk was characteristically dominant in the air and precise in his use of the ball, finishing with a passing accuracy of 96%. He charged forward late on in search of a goal in front of the Kop and would have gotten it had Roberto Firmino not been justifiably selfish.
James Milner, meanwhile, was as dependable as we have to come expect in the unfamiliar right-back role. Having seriously struggled against Crystal Palace, he has done his job much more effectively in the last couple of matches. The inviting cross which Mane successfully attacked was the highlight of an impressive all-around performance.
Andrew Robertson was able to make the other flank his own once again. He too notched an assist, lofting the ball into Wijnaldum, who, let’s just say, did the rest. The vision was fantastic, and the execution even more so. That’s the seventh time he’s teed-up a team-mate this season – as many as any defender and second only to Salah in the Liverpool ranks (in the PL). It’s also important to recognise his unerring defensive contribution, which this time consisted of four important tackles, two interceptions and two blocks.
Each member of the midfield three shone. Fabinho, having settled into the side, is consistently showing his class and produced another performance which suggests he deserves to start every game he’s fit for.
Naby Keita, slated by some but hailed by others on Monday night, gave fans plenty of cause for encouragement with one of his finest outings yet. The Guinean was pitched as a superb all-rounder and that he was this time, registering a passing accuracy of 91% and producing seven tackles – three more than anyone else in red. His through ball to Firmino in the lead-up to Salah’s decisive third was a moment of brilliance. The response to a steadily growing mass of doubters was emphatic.
Crucially, Liverpool’s attack was back in the mood. Mane, who did not allow his level to drop during Liverpool’s blip, notched for the fourth game in succession, Firmino produced an inspired assist and underlined his quality after an ineffectual performance against West Ham and Salah slotted home his 20th goal of the season with aplomb.
Salah’s hunger for the Golden Boot was evident as he snatched at prior opportunities, but still there was an air of inevitability about his eventual goal, expertly-taken. The crossbar denied him another. It’s seemingly all about goals for the Egyptian, but he continues to thrive in virtually all aspects of his game. Statistics like three key passes and two successful dribbles should not be overlooked.
But the man of the match, edging out Salah and Keita, was Gini Wijnaldum.
Wijnaldum drew incredulous groans when he was set through by Firmino just before the half-hour mark and chose to square the ball to Salah, who couldn’t get a shot away from a trickier position, rather than lashing one goalwards himself. It was a poor decision that hinted at a lack of confidence.
But there was a glorious arrogance about the goal which came shortly after. He controlled Robertson’s perfect pass and proceeded to dink it over Boruc with quite cruel precision. The 38-year-old Bournemouth ‘keeper attempted to claw it away, in vain. He’s only just been drafted into the side, but that effort would have had him contemplating retirement.
Expect to see it feature prominently in compilations of the Reds’ top ten goals come the end of the season.
More generally, Wijnaldum showed the Reds what they had been missing against West Ham. He brings vitality, desire and shrewdness in abundance, and Liverpool are noticeably better for it. Because the Dutchman is usually so understated, he can easily prove more conspicuous by his absence.
Though he is rarely a headline grabber, Wijnaldum is consistently excellent as he operates beneath the radar. Almost every time he plays, he will deliver at least a seven out of ten, and this time he was a nine. His relentless battling in the middle of the park and intelligent possession play are integral to Liverpool’s fortunes, and fans are increasingly becoming aware of that.
It is not exaggerative to declare that he has been one of the Reds’ best performers this season. He is, to my mind, certainly within the top five. And perhaps, if this Liverpool team does go on to achieve great things, he will finally begin to get the widespread recognition he deserves from the footballing media.
But part of me prefers Gini as a silent assassin.