The expression on Jurgen Klopp’s face as Watford celebrations broke out all around him said it all. A testing 24 hours for Liverpool, dominated by Philippe Coutinho’s emailed transfer request, ended with the sort of injury-time equaliser that drives managers insane. Miguel Britos, looking at least a yard offside, bundled home from a corner in the 93rd minute, denying Liverpool the victory that would have brought some much-needed respite on the back of the Coutinho saga.
Looking on with a mixture of incredulity and bemusement, Klopp could have been forgiven for thinking that the world is conspiring against him as a spirited Watford side brought parity in the dying seconds. The fact that the goal should not have stood and also arrived from a corner – Liverpool’s achilles heel last season and also the source of Watford’s opener – deepened the sense of frustration.
Two points slipped through Liverpool’s fingers in the process on an afternoon when Klopp’s team missed a commanding figure in central defence much more than their absent Brazilian playmaker. What a difference someone like Virgil van Dijk – one of Liverpool’s prime transfer targets – could have made in a defence that never looked comfortable throughout. “We know we can do better and we have to do better,” Klopp said of the goals Liverpool conceded.
Stefano Okaka exposed those all to familiar shortcomings with Watford’s first, the striker’s free header from close range flashing beyond Simon Mignolet, and the defending in the lead up to the second goal, shortly after Sadio Mane had equalised with a superb solo effort, was every bit as calamitous. New season, same old Liverpool at the back rather sums it up in that respect.
The good news for Klopp is that Liverpool looked menacing at the other end of the pitch once they got their act together in the second half, scoring two goals in as many minutes to turn the game on its head. Roberto Firmino got the first via the penalty spot to haul Liverpool level after Mohamed Salah was brought down, and those two also combined for the third, with the Egyptian marking his debut for the club with a goal.
Liverpool were dominant in that period and had enough chances to put the game to bed, yet their failure to take one of them – Alberto Moreno and Dejan Lovren were denied by Heurelho Gomes either side of Joel Matip heading against the bar – proved costly when Britos plundered that equaliser at the death.
Klopp, understandably, was reluctant to criticise his players too heavily, making the point that the opening day of the season was no time to look for perfection. He admitted, though, that he was disappointed with the way that Liverpool were second best to Watford physically in the first half and also the lack of direction in his team for spells.
Watford deserve credit for starting so well. Okaka, in particular, caught the eye during a bright opening from Marco Silva’s side. Snapping into tackles, Watford denied Liverpool the time and space to impose themselves and took the lead after only eight minutes. Jose Holebas delivered an inswinging corner from the right and the shortcomings of Liverpool’s zonal marking system were there for all to see as Okaka, with Lovren caught in no man’s land, drifted into the six-yard box to head home.
Although Liverpool were struggling to play with any fluency, their equaliser was a beauty. Moreno, who was given his first Premier League start for 10 months, swapped passes with Mane on the edge of the area before sliding a low ball into the feet of Emre Can. Mane ran in behind, adroitly stepping over the ball before accepting Can’s first-time lay off and curling a splendid shot into the far corner.
It was a moment of brilliance that should have had a calming effect on Liverpool, yet 161 seconds later Mignolet was picking the ball out of the back of the net again. Tom Cleverley got away from Jordan Henderson in the inside right channel and delivered a low centre that pinballed between Trent Alexander-Arnold and Matip, gifting Doucoure Watford’s second.
The pattern of the game changed after the restart as Liverpool attacked with much more conviction. Firmino dispatched his spot-kick with the minimum of fuss after Salah, racing onto the Brazilian’s pass, was clumsily brought down by Gomes. When Salah nudged the ball over the line moments later following a lovely piece of skill from Firmino, Liverpool were in total control, yet victory was snatched from them late on courtesy of that controversial Britos goal. “Offside,” said Klopp. “That’s really not fun.”
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