The face of Bill Shankly stared out from the front cover of the Liverpool programme. Wearing his red club tracksuit and holding a leather ball in his left hand, he was pointing with the forefinger on his right hand somewhere into the middle distance. ‘Liverpool was made for me and I was made for Liverpool,’ it said in capital letters behind his image.
It was 60 years to the day since the father of modern Liverpool took charge of his first game for the club and it feels as though his spirit is still abroad at this stadium where he enjoyed so many triumphs. Great managers have come and gone since Shankly but none have felt like his reincarnation quite so much as Jurgen Klopp.
For Klopp, just as it was for Shankly, fraternity is everything in football. For Klopp, just as it was for Shankly, it is the intensity of the brotherhood between players and the unity between club and fans that drives a team onwards and gives it an edge over its competitors. Shankly was a socialist with a manifesto. As his team prepared to go, temporarily, 11 points clear at the top of the table, Klopp set out his own.
Mohamed Salah (centre) celebrates with Jordan Henderson (left) and Sadio Mane (right) after he put Liverpool into the lead
Salah is jubilant after his goal, which was scored in the latter stages of the first half as Liverpool went in front against Watford
The Liverpool players celebrate after Salah’s impressive finish put them in the ascendancy against the Hornets on Saturday
‘In a dressing room,’ he told Liverpool’s supporters in the programme as they arrived for this clash between top and bottom, ‘you don’t look at someone and see colour, creed, sexuality or anything of that nature. You see a friend, a teammate, someone who you can help and someone who can help you. Someone that by working together, you can have better collective experiences than if you tried to do it on your own.’
When Liverpool kicked off against Watford, Anfield was still agog with the news that Klopp had signed a new extended contract that will keep him at the club until 2024, reassuring supporters that the glories the German boss has restored to the red half of Merseyside will not melt away again just as Liverpool’s hegemony in English football appears to have been re-established.
It is only mid-December but this sketchy victory over the Premier League’s bottom club took them 17 points clear of the champions, Manchester City. Leicester City are their nearest challengers. Neither of their pursuers should be discounted but it is already clear this represents by far Liverpool’s best chance of winning their first title for 30 years.
The Liverpool players congratulate Salah following his first goal, scored in the closing stages of the first half at Anfield
Salah made sure of Liverpool’s victory with a clever flick towards the end of the game which Ben Foster was unable to stop
Salah is congratulated by team-mate James Milner after he scored Liverpool’s second goal in their victory against Watford
After Salah produced a clever flick to double Liverpool’s lead, the Egyptian was congratulated by forward Divock Origi
Watford’s Gerard Deulofeu and Troy Deeney argue with each other after Salah’s goal put Liverpool in the lead
This was a long way from being their most fluent performance of what has been a remarkable first half of the season. It was their 16th victory in 17 unbeaten matches this campaign, and their eighth league win in succession, but it may also have been their least convincing.
‘We need each point we can get because it is a tough and long season,’ Klopp said, as he contemplated what lies ahead and tried to confine this attempt at a trophy that has become an obsession for supporters to simple parameters. ‘We just have to recover and play the next game.’
Watford have won 15 fewer games than Liverpool since the season began but their new manager, Nigel Pearson, would have been entitled to feel aggrieved that they did not collect three points here in his first match in charge.
Watford, who started the day six points adrift of safety, missed chance after chance after chance. There were glaring mishits in front of goal, fluffed one-on-ones with the goalkeeper, Gerard Deulofeu hit the post with a corner and Virgil van Dijk even got in on the act by wrong-footing Alisson with a backpass and nearly diverting the ball into the net.
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp guided his side to another victory in their quest to win the Premier League title
Klopp speaks to Georginio Wijnaldum after the Liverpool midfielder had to be substituted when he suffered an injury
MATCH FACTS, PLAYER RATINGS AND LEAGUE TABLE
Liverpool (4-3-3): Alisson 7; Alexander-Arnold 6, Gomez 7, Van Dijk 7, Milner 6; Wijnaldum 6(Robertson 60 6), Henderson 7, Shaqiri 6 (Oxlade-Chamberlain 69 6); Salah 7.5, Firmino 7(Origi 88 6), Mane 7.
Substitutes not used: Adrian, Keita, Lallana, Williams.
Booked: Milner, Henderson
Watford (4-2-3-1): Foster 7; Mariappa 6, Cathcart 7, Kabasele 6, Femenia 6; Capoue 7, Doucoure 6 (Quina 87); Deulofeu 7, Hughes 7, Sarr 6; Deeney 6 (Gray 75 6).
Substitutes not used: Gomes, Dawson, Chalobah, Success, Foulquier.
Referee: Andre Marriner 7.
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Sadio Mane thought he had scored a second goal for Liverpool but it was ruled out for offside after VAR was consulted
Watford missed all those chances and Liverpool, who are now 40 points ahead of Pearson’s side, took advantage.
Mo Salah put them ahead before half time with a sublime finish after a lightning counter attack but it was not until two minutes from the end that the Egypt forward made the game safe with a cheeky flick that went through the legs of Christian Kabasele on the line.
Liverpool will not care unduly how the three points were attained. Their march goes on. And they will depart on Sunday for the Club World Cup in Doha, where they play their first match on Wednesday, still boasting an impregnable record in the league. They are not unstoppable. Yet. But they have built up a fearsome momentum. The title race is already at a point where it will take a collapse of spectacular proportions to deny them.
If Watford had been more adept in front of goal, though, this might easily have been a different story. The visitors should have taken the lead in the sixth minute. They worked the ball down the right to find Ismaila Sarr and when he whipped the ball across the face of goal, Troy Deeney got his feet in a tangle and failed to get the touch needed to divert the cross past Alisson.
After VAR was consulted it was deemed that Mane was offside when he received the ball prior to him finding the net
Recently appointed Watford manager Nigel Pearson watched on as his side, who are bottom of the league, were beaten again
Watford midfielder Abdoulaye Doucoure shows his frustration after he missed an inviting opportunity to score for Watford
Watford’s Ismaila Sarr missed the ball in comical fashion when he had a chance to find the net in the first half against the Reds
Liverpool striker Roberto Firmino is denied by Watford goalkeeper Ben Foster during the Premier League encounter
Salah attempts to push forward for Liverpool while he is being tracked by Watford defender Kiko Femenia during the first half
Watford wasted another chance eight minutes before half time. Once more, the danger came down the Liverpool left. This time, a clever exchange of passes ended with Sarr finding Etienne Capoue in space. Capoue had time to take the ball to the byline, look up and pick out Abdoulaye Doucoure 12 yards out. A little composure was called for but it did not answer. Doucoure swung wildly and missed.
The ball was scrambled out for a corner and without delay, Liverpool made Watford pay for their profligacy. They cleared the ball to Sadio Mane, who helped in on to Salah. Salah ran at the retreating defence, cut inside on to his right foot and bent a brilliant finish round Ben Foster and into the back of the net. A roar of relief rent Anfield.
Watford should have drawn level straight away. Deulofeu darted down the left and hit a hard, low cross into the six-yard box. Alisson dived to parry it away but it fell invitingly to Sarr eight yards out. Sarr steadied himself and tried to smash the ball goalwards with his right foot. He only made the faintest touch. The ball actually went backwards. If he’d been playing cricket, Sarr would have been caught behind.
Watford midfielder Will Hughes attempts to stop Liverpool winger Mane in his tracks during an intense battle
Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson attempts to win the ball from Watford winger Deulofeu during the clash at Anfield
Watford midfielder Doucoure looks to win the ball while under pressure from Liverpool centre-back Virgil van Dijk
Watford midfielders Will Hughes and Etienne Capoue are involved in a tussle for the ball with Liverpool left back Milner
Liverpool thought they had gone further ahead five minutes after the interval when a bullet header from Mane beat Foster but was ruled out for offside by VAR. Even then, Watford continued to make, and waste, chances. Deulofeu burst clean through on Alisson but hit his shot too close to the Liverpool keeper, who was able to push it away.
Liverpool had several chances to increase their lead but they had caught Watford’s bug and Van Dijk’s late backpass that caught Alisson off-guard made Anfield groan in alarm. They want the title so much here that the nerves in the crowd are already palpable. They dare not countenance a setback lest it leads to another. The pressure will get so heavy that Liverpool will need a cushion going in to the run-in.
So far, there is every sign they will have one. They got the goal that made the game safe late on when the ball was pulled back to substitute Divock Origi ten yards out. He miscued his shot, too, but it bobbled to Salah, who flicked it between the legs of a defender and into the net. Liverpool had rode their luck, just as champions need to.