Opinion: West Brom win another huge leap towards top-four for gritty Liverpool

Opinion: West Brom win another huge leap towards top-four for gritty Liverpool

Liverpool earned another massive victory in their chase for Champions League qualification this season away at West Bromwich Albion on Sunday - and they produced a gutsy performance to do it.

Charlie Malam

Jürgen Klopp and Liverpool entered the land of the giants and emerged walking tallest. This was another towering test hurdled.

In isolation, the Reds' celebrations in the aftermath of their Premier League victory at The Hawthorns on Sunday would seem exaggerated. It's 'only' West Brom, as the detractors would say. 

But this was more than that for this Liverpool team. This was exactly the type of challenge supposed to trip them up, West Brom's strengths a juxtaposition of their weaknesses. Not this time.

Victory didn't just move Liverpool back into third and another sizeable step closer to Champions League qualification, but underlined the momentum and confidence underpinning the club's current unbeaten run. Belief is growing that a top-four finish is within reach with the Reds in their best form since autumn.

Five wins and two draws have followed the six games since an abject defeat away at Leicester City at the end of February and this result - in addition to a hard-fought victory away to Stoke City last weekend - is yet another huge boost.

It wasn't a straightforward afternoon in the Black Country, though. Far from it. Roberto Firmino's header, meeting Lucas Leiva's flick-on after James Milner's poor free-kick delivery, changed the picture of a desperately dour first-half devoid of action.

Liverpool had struggled for openings up until that point and each side had only had the one shot on target, with neither goalkeeper tested despite half-decent opportunities at either end.

Liverpool open the scoring... from a set-piece

Klopp had challenged his side to learn to win ugly less than a fortnight ago, but Liverpool might have taken it a bit too literally for a second straight weekend.

While clearly better than the hopeless first-half showing served up at Stoke, the visitors had shown very little in the way of breaking down the stubborn Baggies; Tony Pulis and his baseball cap looking as though he would prove the scourge of Liverpool again.

Pulis' set-up was of no surprise - he has organised his sides, when West Brom, Crystal Palace and Stoke manager, in the same way down the years - but Liverpool still appeared short of answers.

They had a couple of half-chances, Roberto Firmino dragging just wide of the far post after Philippe Coutinho's lay-off on 15 minutes, before Coutinho volleyed wide on his left foot after his fellow Brazilian's lobbed ball in behind.

But the best chance came before that, and for West Brom. Nacer Chadli somehow managed to kick only fresh air after Hal Robson-Kanu had hooked a ball in towards the back post following a free-kick and Firmino failed to head clear. 

That should have made it 1-0 and challenged Liverpool - having earned more points from losing positions than any other top-flight team this term - to come from behind on the road for a second successive game.

Instead it was a let off and on the cusp of half-time, Liverpool struck first.

Klopp's charges will protest the set-piece was pre-planned, but it appeared more than a tad spontaneous. Regardless, Firmino broke free from Craig Dawson to run in and meet Lucas' scooped backwards header at the back post.

The forward's 12th goal of the season - surpassing last season's final tally in 12 less appearances - forced West Brom to be less conservative after the restart, which only played into Liverpool's hands.

Mignolet massive again after Stoke heroics

It could have been 2-0 before the hour mark. Firmino - involved in more Premier League goals than any other Liverpool player since the start of last season (34 - 21 goals, 13 assists) - should have had himself an assist when his cross picked out Milner at the back post.

The converted left-back side-footed over the crossbar from just a matter of yards when scoring would have put the game out of sight, Firmino having done excellently to tee the 30-year-old up. 

And Liverpool were very fortunate they weren't made to pay for that miss, Simon Mignolet again coming to the fore with a late, and great, save.

Salomon Rondon slid into the path of Matt Phillips but Mignolet closed him down well, his outstretched left leg denying the winger's low attempt after Rondon had shrugged off Joël Matip and his team-mate had got beyond Nathaniel Clyne.

The Belgian 'keeper proved a match-winner again after two sublime close-range saves against Charlie Adam and Saido Berahino at the bet365 Stadium last weekend.

A first away clean sheet of 2017 in the league and just a second in 14 games in the calendar year was thoroughly deserved from a man staking his claim to remain part of Klopp's plans next season, though you suspect a longer period of consistency at this level will be required to remain the German's outright No.1.

Again, Liverpool wasted an excellent opportunity to kill the game off. Ben Foster was sent upfield at a corner with two minutes of stoppage-time still to play and Alberto Moreno was gifted the chance to make it 2-0 on the counter-attack.

Foster was still in the Liverpool half and with Emre Can free to his right and Daniel Sturridge free to his left, the Spaniard opted to go alone and put wide of an empty goal from 40 yards. Oh Alberto. 

That led to a tense, and quite incredible, final few minutes that was encapsulated by Foster coming up for another corner a couple of minutes later.

Fortunately Georginio Wijnaldum's running and the defensive effort of Liverpool's back-line just about carried them through for a a first ever Premier League victory away to a Tony Pulis team and a first win at the Hawthorns since 2011.

Several excellent individual performances inspire Reds to victory

This, also, was the first time in a single Premier League season that Liverpool have won away at both Stoke and West Brom. Don't doubt the size of that achievement for a team they said were incapable of gritting their teeth and toughing it out.

Five games remain of the season now, with three of those at Anfield - a venue Liverpool have only lost one of their last 24 league games, stretching back to February 2016.

Despite none of those fixtures being easy, their opponents Crystal Palace, WatfordSouthamptonWest Ham United and Middlesbrough, Liverpool are in control of their own destiny. All of their rivals, Manchester City apart, face significantly tougher schedules until May 21.

But Liverpool needn't worry about their rivals, especially if they maintain performances of this ilk.

This was another brimming with grit, guts and determination; another in which they got by without the penetration of winger Sadio Mané's pace and movement and the energy and drive of midfield duo Adam Lallana and Jordan Henderson

And got by would be a harsh choice of words, too, considering how well some of Klopp's other players have filled the void. Emre Can continued his sublime recent run of form with another commanding performance in the middle, a distinctly different Emre Can to the one Liverpool fans saw just three or four months ago.

This was the latest evidence - of which there has been a lot lately - that he deserves his new contract. The debate a few months ago over whether he warranted a pay rise is no longer a debate. In this form, the German is pivotal.

Of the other choice picks, Firmino led the line with typical gusto and efficiency, but was also at his creative best as he brought team-mates into play in the final third time and time again. Indeed, Firmino showed no signs of lacking in freshness, despite his manager's worries ahead of the trip to the West Midlands.

Further back, Matip produced another reminder of how well Liverpool did to sign the Cameroonian centre-back on a free transfer. He and Lovren remain unbeaten in their 14 league starts together, Klopp left to rue how susceptible they are to niggle injuries.

How different things may have been had they been this shored up all season. Not a single chance came of a West Brom set-piece as they cleared everything thrown, or crossed, their way.

Alongside Can in midfield, Lucas and Wijnaldum were both impressive again - completing a steely and tenacious trio in the middle, as crucial a facet of the performance here as it was in the second-half in the Potteries.

It was by no means stylish, but this is the kind of performance Liverpool fans have cried out for. Too many times, this season and last, have they shown too little fight in the face of a physical battle. Not this time, much to the delight of Klopp and the 2,900 travelling supporters. 

Carry on in this fashion and Liverpool will be just fine. They're already beyond last season's points total by six, and have bettered their final points total from six of the last seven seasons with five games remaining.

Now Klopp's men are just a few games away from rounding off what will go down as a memorable, and successful, campaign if it ends with a top-four finish. It has to.