Spot the dif­fer­ence

Salah penalty calms the nerves to put Klopp’s men back on track af­ter suc­ces­sive de­feats

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Front Page - Sam Wal­lace CHIEF FOOT­BALL WRITER at the Amex Sta­dium

From their great tri­umphs of De­cem­ber to the cold re­al­i­ties of Jan­uary, so the road to May opens up in front of Liver­pool with their first win of the new year on an af­ter­noon when it was so much closer than it should have been for Jur­gen Klopp’s ti­tle-chas­ing play­ers.

The home team failed to man­age an at­tempt on tar­get all game – be it shot, header, scuff or mis­cue – al­though when the ball went into the Liver­pool area three min­utes into in­jury-time, you could tell Klopp was en­vis­ag­ing dis­as­ter for his team. There was a half-clear­ance from Trent Alexan­der-Arnold and even­tu­ally the ball was hacked away as the game crawled to­wards its con­clu­sion one way or an­other.

They will say these are the kind of non-events that ev­ery pu­ta­tive cham­pion must raise them­selves to win – and per­haps that is all that mat­ters when Liver­pool’s man­ager looks at the ta­ble this morn­ing. It felt a far cry in the first half from the de­feats dished out to Manch­ester United, Wolver­hamp­ton Wan­der­ers, New­cas­tle and Arse­nal last month be­fore the un­beaten run was fi­nally ended by Manch­ester City on Jan 3.

They got there in the end by virtue of Mo­hamed Salah’s penalty af­ter the Egyp­tian had first been dragged back by Pas­cal Gross and then had his legs kicked from un­der­neath him. Amid a rig­or­ous Brighton dis­play this was their chief er­ror and they paid dearly for it, try­ing in the sec­ond half to shift from con­tain­ment to at­tack with­out much luck. It was not just that they had only 29 per cent pos­ses­sion, it was that they scarcely laid a glove on Liver­pool.

Af­ter­wards Klopp talked en­thu­si­as­ti­cally about the ma­tu­rity of his play­ers to see the game out fol­low­ing Salah’s penalty, en­sur­ing there were no mis- takes. “Not mak­ing mis­takes is im­pos­si­ble in foot­ball,” Klopp said, “but you can do it with­out mak­ing de­ci­sive mis­takes, and that’s what we did. We won, and I am ab­so­lutely happy about that.”

Those de­feats to City and then, with a much-changed team, against Wolves in the FA Cup are be­hind this Liver­pool team with their lead back up to seven points at the top of the ta­ble.

The visit of Wolves to City comes to­mor­row, when the ex­pec­ta­tion is that Pep Guardi­ola’s team will once more close the gap be­fore Crys­tal Palace visit An­field next week­end. There is no room for er­ror, and on days such as these against a solid, well-or­gan­ised Brighton team, it is con­cen­tra­tion that Klopp looks for in his play­ers.

“We are not the Har­lem Glo­be­trot­ters,” he said later. “We have to de­liver re­sults, and it is dif­fi­cult enough for that. We have to per­form, and the per­for­mance was good. It was not the best per­for­mance of the sea­son, but from a ma­tu­rity point of view it was ex­cel­lent. On a good day any­one can win games; on an av­er­age day some can win games; and on a bad day only a few can win.”

He played Fabinho at cen­tre-back ahead of Joel Matip, rea­son­ing that if his team were to have so much of the ball he would be bet­ter off with an adapted mid­fielder who would be able to pass flu­ently. There was an in­jury scare for Alexan­der-Arnold in the warm-up when he ap­peared to roll his an­kle. The 20-year-old had it strapped up and car­ried on.

For the home crowd there was gen­eral dis­may at what they felt was a se­ries of close de­ci­sions go­ing against them from ref­eree Kevin Friend, and that per­spec­tive was re­flected in Chris Hughton’s touch­line ir­ri­ta­tion. The Brighton man­ager po­litely con­firmed later that he felt the border­line calls had all gone the way of the away team.

It felt a reck­less chal­lenge from Gross for the penalty just four min­utes af­ter half-time when he grabbed at Salah and then kicked out too. “I feel for Pas­cal, be­cause Salah is prob­a­bly the most dan­ger­ous player in this po­si­tion,” Hughton said, but it turned out this was the mo­ment that de­cided the match. Af­ter four games un­de­feated, Brighton never found a way back, and while Klopp ad­mired their five-man mid­field, it was a dif­fer­ent story as they chased the game.

“It’s al­ways a dis­ap­point­ment [not to have an at­tempt on goal], but I was con­scious of the type of team we were up against,” Hughton said. “The most im­por­tant thing is to stay in the game. If you play open and ex­pan­sive and you find your­self two or three goals down, there is gen­er­ally no way back from that. I thought it was the right tac­tics against the best team in the coun­try. I am de­lighted we ran them as close as we did.”

Even so, it did not feel like the most en­ter­tain­ing side in the coun­try as Liver­pool strug­gled to get the ball mov­ing quickly in the first half. It felt like they were wait­ing for a mis­take from Brighton – which even­tu­ally came. By the same to­ken, Liver­pool were guard­ing against giv­ing away at­tack­ing free kicks that would al­low the home team to un­leash Shane Duffy and Lewis Dunk on the op­po­si­tion area. Even when Liver­pool scored it took a while for Brighton to try to force the is­sue in this very slow-burner of a match.

By the end, Hughton had sent on An­thony Knock­aert and Florin An­done to try to force the mat­ter, but it was too late. As one would ex­pect of the great Dutch­man, Vir­gil van Dijk took care of the more di­rect ap­proaches that Brighton at­tempted. On days like these, when the de­fence can­not af­ford to put a foot wrong, he is in­valu­able.

Six­teen games stand be­tween Liver­pool and the club’s first league ti­tle in 29 years. Klopp said it was never a con­cern for him that his team would re­turn to win­ning ways and there is no doubt he be­lieves in these play­ers. As the fi­nale looms into view he is fo­cus­ing on ma­tu­rity and avoid­ing the kind of mis­takes that have un­der­mined pre­vi­ous ti­tle bids. That mantra is likely to be the re­al­ity from now on.

Re­lief for the Reds: Mo­hamed Salah puts Liver­pool seven points ahead in the Premier League. Manch­ester City play to­mor­row

Salah slots home: Liver­pool’s top scorer (right) con­verts from the penalty spot

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