The dreaded Wednesday night/Saturday lunchtime turnaround. Crystal Palace away. No victories on the road since September. The top scorer starting on the bench. A lethargic performance was surely in the offing.
But no. Liverpool dismantled Crystal Palace in a fashion that was almost laughable. Symbolic redemption for their humiliation at Villa Park, this victory moves them six points clear of the pack (for 24 hours at least). Never has the outlook been more ominous for this season’s challengers.
Let’s reflect on the outstanding individual displays…
Starting with Trent Alexander-Arnold. He set-up his side’s fourth goal with a lay-off to Henderson, whose target was locked, but his best piece of play came inside three minutes when he measured a lofted pass into Sadio Mane to unlock Crystal Palace.
There was a second ‘pre-assist’ late on when Joel Matip glanced his corner the way of Mohamed Salah.
Such is the Englishman’s appetite, he will have been disappointed to squander a 20-yard free-kick and fumble a cross to substitute Curtis Jones, awaiting a tap-in.
On the opposite side of a defence that kept its ninth clean sheet of the season was Andrew Robertson, a surefire player of the season contender on current form.
The room afforded Roberto Firmino as he applied the finish for Liverpool’s third disguised the quality of the delivery. The Brazilian was still well outside the penalty area when Robertson took aim, but the ball matched the run seamlessly.
In midfield, Naby Keita’s excellence was more understated. He was exceptional in tight spaces and fashioned two scoring chances with his pass selection.
First, he fizzed a pass into Sadio Mane on the edge of the area before picking the scraps up to ensure Firmino could put the winger through on goal.
Then, early in the second half, he clipped the ball out to Alexander-Arnold in space, affording him the time to spot the advance of Henderson.
It was a timely reminder of his qualities.
Henderson himself continues to excel. Time and again, he breaks up opposition attacks and launches Liverpool assaults from deep. When he receives possession, the starting gun fires in Mane’s imagination.
He has now scored 11 goals from outside the area in his Liverpool career – 41% of his overall total. For some, his lack of goals may be all that denies him the ‘complete’ label, but Liverpool supporters appreciate his immense value regardless.
Sadio Mane also has to be a MOTM contender. His goal drought was never going to end with a tap-in, was it? It was a merciless finish, the kind which would leave a defender feeling resigned to their fate.
He’d set-up a goal too, but when no. 10 flashed up in red, he was seething. He sensed a chance to make the opposition suffer. You can only applaud the mentality.
Mohamed Salah managed to stake a claim in only 30 minutes. An instinctive header preceded a mathematical strike into the top left corner. That’s 16 in all top competitions with less than half of the season elapsed. He is well on course to pass 30, the natural target for a world-class forward.
He is the first Liverpool substitute in Premier League history to directly contribute to three goals, having also threaded a pass into Firmino for goal number five.
But Firmino, who matched his two goals/one assist output, just about edges it.
Moments before half-time, he picked it up deep inside his own half and unleashed Robertson with a sublime outside-of-the-foot pass.
His incisive moment was rewarded with the return ball, but the job wasn’t done. He took command with the first touch then scored with a delightfully subtle second to leave render Vicente Guaita a spectator.
He made it a brace for the first time in nearly two years with a cool dink twenty minutes from time.
In recent months, when faced with that angle to goal, Firmino would tend to hesitate and attempt a cut-back. The venom of the attack would fade. But he is backing himself again.
Indeed, the facets of his game that were sorely lacking in his barren spell are flourishing again.
In front of goal he has regained his edge. Yes, his midweek winner was one of the highlights of his career, but I can’t help but look back further to the victory over Leicester, when he hit the post twice, fumbled two rebounds but then managed to get his goal at his latest. It felt significant at the time, and it has proven to be.
Firmino has now scored five goals in his last nine matches after netting only once in his previous 18.
Creatively, he had also been struggling. His passing in the final third was too often imprecise, typically pushing team-mates wide or forcing them to check their run.
But now he is starting to carry a much greater threat, and operate with more composure, around the opposition box.
He is thinking one step ahead again, as exemplified by his first-time ball into Mane when it broke his way.
Firmino is backing himself and reaping the rewards. There were never doubts about his ability among Liverpool supporters, only about his confidence. Diogo Jota leapfrogged him in the pecking order as he rode the crest of a wave.
When Jota picked up an injury, Liverpool lost a major goal threat. Now they have got one back.
In those rare games when each of the front three is on song, *this* is what can happen.
At times, the Liverpool fan’s refrain – ‘if you don’t rate Firmino, you don’t understand football’ – has rang hollow.
But today’s evidence simply cannot be overlooked by the naysayers.