A draw at Old Trafford against an in-form Manchester United in Liverpool’s toughest remaining game: it was a good result on paper, but a disappointing one in the circumstances.
The Reds were, in truth, dreadful against their fierce rivals, with a hopeful long-range punt from Daniel Sturridge the only shot on target they could muster over the course of the 90 minutes.
They may have returned to the top of the Premier League, but too many recent performances have not been worthy of champions.
United went into the game without two key players in Nemanja Matic and Anthony Martial, and by halftime Juan Mata and Ander Herrera were off, down the tunnel and added to the injury list. Jesse Lingard was on and off in an instant, leaving the home side with no remaining substitutions and a visibly struggling Marcus Rashford to lead the line.
With Liverpool dominating the ball and asking the only real questions, United looked to be there for the taking in the second half. But it was Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side who emerged from the tunnel emboldened, roared on by the Old Trafford faithful, and looked the more likely to nick it until the final whistle.
Jurgen Klopp confessed after the game that it was a case of two points dropped for his side. They had a great chance to send out a resounding statement with a mightily sweet victory, but now chief rivals City will be smelling blood.
Indeed, supporters may be most concerned by what appears to be a mounting level of anxiety.
Attack falls flat
The stage was set for Mohamed Salah to step-up. Much had been made of his relative struggles against top sides this season (he had only managed a solitary goal against Arsenal) and he was a strike away from reaching the 50-goal mark faster than any player in top-flight history.
But his performance will only give his critics ammunition. Yes, service was more limited than usual, but when he did receive the ball, he failed to do anything with it. Luke Shaw, to his credit, marshalled him expertly throughout.
The Egyptian struggled so much that Klopp saw fit to haul his best player off, to a chorus of ironic cheers, with ten minutes remaining.
One might argue that Salah’s lack of truly massive goals, this season at least, is holding back his elevation to the status of the league’s best.
That’s not to say Sadio Mane was any better on the other flank. In fact, he misplaced a number of simple passes and was far from his usually menacing self.
Liverpool missed Roberto Firmino after he was forced off on the half-hour mark. They sorely lacked any composure or ingenuity in the final third, and Firmino had provided both against Bayern Munich.
It’s certainly not the first time this season Liverpool’s attack has looked blunt. Had it been as potent as it was last season, the Reds may have been in a commanding position by this point.
Defensive solidity ensures point
In the end, Liverpool were reliant on their backline to ensure they didn’t leave empty-handed.
In most games, Alisson Becker has very little to do, but on this occasion he was called upon to show his class, swiping the ball away from Lingard as he looked to go around him with the goal gaping. It was the kind of intervention which justifies his enormous price-tag.
Meanwhile, Virgil van Dijk was rock solid, particularly in repelling any aerial advances, and the high-line was executed expertly when defending set pieces.
That’s three shutouts on the bounce for Liverpool, who had looked vulnerable in draws against Leicester and West Ham. In all, they have kept 15 clean sheets in 27 games – three more than anybody else.
For a while Liverpool’s defence was their biggest weakness. Now it appears to be their greatest strength.
Klopp calls backfire
Klopp ought to face some criticism after some poor decisions. Selecting James Milner at right-back over Trent Alexander-Arnold was a big call which arguably backfired, with the veteran Englishman contributing virtually nothing in the first half and failing to do much more in the second.
Milner enjoyed plenty of possession as he bombed down the right-hand side, and Liverpool saw his deliveries into the area as a potentially fruitful attacking outlet. But United dealt with each easily.
Alexander-Arnold’s crossing is hit-and-miss, but almost all Liverpool fans would agree that he contributes significantly more than Milner going forward.
And since the visitors consistently looked to their full-backs to unlock the United defence, Klopp’s call is worth dwelling on.
Liverpool would also have benefitted from bringing on Xherdan Shaqiri in place of an injured Firmino. Salah was having very little joy on the wings so could have been moved central, with Shaqiri slotting in at right-wing. Instead, Sturridge, typically, was on the periphery.
Fans also had qualms with the conservative midfield selection of Fabinho, Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum. An improving Naby Keita watched the game from the sidelines.
Reds back to square one
Where, then, does this leave Liverpool? On January 3rd, they had a chance to move ten points clear at the top of the league by beating City. They could have been in ‘one hand on the trophy’ territory by this point.
As it turns out, their lead has almost been wiped out. City’s significantly superior goal difference means that one-point advantage is itself deceptive in some ways.
There is no more room for error. Liverpool will have to at least match City between now and the end of the season.
Six points from meetings with best of the rest Watford and neighbours Everton, who will be just as desperate as United to derail their title hopes, are truly essential. They can’t be sure that City, close to unstoppable on form, will slip-up again.