Before the season began, Neil Warnock said he was looking forward to meeting Jurgen Klopp, his equal in touchline pyrotechnics, when his Cardiff City team visited Anfield.
Then he thought for a second about what he had said and qualified it. ‘I’m looking forward to meeting him,’ he said, ‘but I’m not particularly looking forward to playing his team.’
Warnock has been perfecting nice lines in self-deprecation this season as Cardiff fight for scraps but on Saturday his fears about playing Liverpool were confirmed. His team fought and fought to keep Klopp’s unbeaten side within reach but in the closing stages, Liverpool cut loose and leapfrogged Manchester City to go top of the table.
MATCH FACTS, PLAYER RATINGS AND MATCH ZONE
Liverpool (4-3-3): Alisson 6; Alexander-Arnold 7, Lovren 7, Van Dijk 7, Moreno 6.5; Lallana 6 (Shaqiri 61, 7), Fabinho 7, Wijnaldum 7; Salah 8, Firmino 6 (Milner 71, 6), Mane 7.5
Subs not used: Mignolet, Gomez, Sturridge, Robertson, Matip
Goalscorers: Salah 10, Mane 66, 87, Shaqiri 84
Manager: Jurgen Klopp 7
Cardiff (4-4-2): Etheridge 7; Manga 6, Morrison 6, Bamba 6, Bennett 6; Hoilett 6, Camarasa 6.5, Gunnarsson 6.5 (Damour 73, 6), Murphy 6 (Harris 74, 6); Reid 6 (Zohore 83), Paterson 6.5
Subs not used: Smithies, Connolly, Cunningham, Madine
Goalscorers: Paterson 77
Manager: Neil Warnock 6
Referee: S Attwell 6
Man of the Match: Mohamed Salah.
Xherdan Shaqiri nets his first Liverpool goal from Mohamed Salah’s through ball .CLICK HERE for more from MATCH ZONE
Cardiff did manage to score the first league goal at Anfield since Michail Antonio scored for the visitors in the 59thminute of a 4-1 victory over West Ham on February 24th.
That ruined Liverpool’s hopes of establishing an outright top-flight club record of 10 consecutive home clean sheets and ended their impregnable streak at 918 minutes. Another 4-1 win, this time against Cardiff, softened the blow.
And so Liverpool march on, locked in an enthralling top of the table battle with the other unbeaten sides, Chelsea and City, who play on Sunday and Monday. Their defence, which has only conceded four goals all season, was majestic once again. And when the attack exploded into life, as it almost always does, the match was over.
‘We had to create and create and create,’ Klopp said after the match, ‘and it was really hard work. It is really important to stay on track.
‘It is unbelievable that five or six clubs have so many points at the top and that makes it even more intense. It is the next step and now we have time to recover and prepare for the Arsenal game next Saturday, which will be another nice challenge.’
For most of the game, this was football as a formality. Liverpool were so dominant, the result was never in doubt and the best of the entertainment came in moments of flair and odd statistics. For flair, it was hard to beat Firmino lying on the floor near the Liverpool corner flag and still managing to nutmeg an opponent with a backheel.
And for the statistic, how about this: Wijnaldum completed more than twice as many passes (69) as the whole Cardiff team (34) in the first half.
One other is worth thinking about: Liverpool have completed more than a quarter of their season now and are, technically at least, on course to beat the English record of only 16 goals conceded by their Liverpool predecessors in 1978-79.
It’ll be a stretch but even to be thinking about it shows how far this Liverpool defence has come.
Liverpool put Cardiff under pressure from the start and it was only ten minutes before they took the lead. Salah started the move, backheeling the ball to Alexander-Arnold and when Cardiff failed to clear his fiercely driven cross, it bounced around the area before falling to Salah, who sidefooted it past Etheridge.
Liverpool sensed Cardiff’s vulnerability and three minutes later, Salah drove a long pass forward to Van Dijk, Liverpool’s skipper for the day, and his header beat Etheridge but cannoned off the outside of a post.
Etheridge had to rush from his line to deny Salah again and a minute later, Liverpool’s runaway top scorer last season had an appeal for a penalty turned down. Cardiff were under siege.
The rest of the half turned into a stalemate. Liverpool attacked, Cardiff defended. Liverpool dominated possession, Cardiff broke it up on the edge of their own box. Very occasionally, Cardiff counter-attacked but never with quite enough conviction to endanger the Liverpool goal.
It was only in the closing seconds of the half that Liverpool came close to extending their lead. Moreno, in the side to give Robertson a rest, curled a ball into the box and Lallana met it unmarked at the back post. He headed it back across Etheridge towards the corner of the net but it was nodded off the line by Morrison.
When the second half began, though, Morrison gave Liverpool a scare at the other end when he helped to bundle the ball into the home side’s goal. As the Cardiff fans in the Anfield Road End celebrated, the linesman’s flag ruled the goal out for offside.
The match resumed its familiar pattern but midway through the half, as Liverpool appeared to be heading into a dead end of Cardiff challenges, they got the goal that seemed to have put the match out of reach.
As Liverpool tried to find a way through the forest of defenders’ legs, Mane broke one tackle and then another before unleashing a vicious left foot drive past Etheridge.
Liverpool threatened to cut loose again briefly but after a flurry of substitutions, Cardiff startled Anfield by pulling a goal back.
They got a touch of luck when Hoilett’s cross was deflected into the path of Paterson by the outstretched boot of Van Dijk but Paterson steered it past Alisson with aplomb and Cardiff, improbably, were back in the game.
Salah should have done better with an attempted chip when Etheridge was caught way off his line but six minutes from the end, another assist from the Egypt forward finally put an end to Cardiff’s resistance.
He cut in from the right and played a short ball to substitute Shaqiri. A lovely swerve from Shaqiri sat Morrison on the turf and the Switzerland forward passed the ball into the corner.
A minute later, Liverpool were further ahead. Fabinho won the ball inside his own half and freed Mane. Mane fed Salah who slid the ball back to him and Mane lifted it deftly over Etheridge to finish Liverpool’s afternoon with a flourish.
‘We went down so early everybody might have expected the floodgates,’ Warnock said. ‘We tightened up second half and kept going. The quality of their substitutes, you are going to get punished if there are any lapses. It only takes a second and a little bit of quality catches you out.’