Ismaila Sarr was the architect of Liverpool’s downfall as the league-leader’s dream of finishing the season unbeaten was left in tatters with defeat against Watford.
Story of the match
Watford went into the game low in confidence and form. The Hornets were without a win since beating Bournemouth away in mid-January.
Nigel Pearson made two changes to the side that was humbled at Old Trafford a week ago, with fans gleeful to see the return of Sarr and Kiko Femenia in place of Roberto Pereyra and Craig Dawson.
Liverpool arrived in Hertfordshire on an 18-game winning streak in the league, one short of a new record and comfortably top of the league. Jurgen Klopp’s side are only 12 points away from clinching the club’s first top-flight title since 1990.
Klopp, however, was forced into two changes to the side that beat West Ham United 3-2 a week ago. Joe Gomez (fitness concern) and Naby Keita (hip) were replaced by Dejan Lovren and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
The game initially went against form with Watford quickest to find their feet.
With only four minutes on the clock, Gerard Deulofeu signalled his intent as he shot wide from 20 yards after cutting in from the left.
Six minutes later and Watford were inches away form taking the lead. Receiving the ball twenty yards out, Deulofeu drove into the box before again cutting in on his right foot. Under minimal pressure, Deulofeu set himself 12 yards out from goal but saw his shot sail agonisingly over the bar, much to Alisson’s relief in the Liverpool goal.
One minute later, Watford were again baring their teeth as Will Hughes was unable to capitalise on a three-on-two counter attack after a loose Troy Deeney pass but Watford were in the ascendency.
After quarter of an hour, Abdoulaye Doucoure saw a chance deflected wide for a corner 12 yards out after more good work from Deulofeu.
It took until the 20th minute for Liverpool to register an effort on goal as Mo Salah struck the side-netting from a tight angle. It was to be Liverpool’s only shot of the first-half.
After that, the first-half became more of an even affair but Watford were left cursing their luck ten minutes from the end of the half as Deulofeu, the stand-out performer of the half, was stretched off the field with a knee injury. Pereyra came on in his stead for the Argentinian’s 100th Premier League appearance.
In the fifth minute of added time, Watford again had their heads in their hands, but this time after another glaring miss in front of goal.
After Hughes had been unceremoniously knocked to the ground by Lovren, Adam Masina swung in the resulting free-kick into a crowded Liverpool box. The Reds failed to deal with the danger as Alisson spilled the ball at the feet of Deeney. The first effort rebounded off the Liverpool goalkeeper back to the Watford captain but he rushed the attempt and saw his effort drift wide with the goal beckoning.
Watford carried on where they left off in the second half.
With the half less than a minute old, Pereyra put through Sarr on goal. Taking his shot early from 20 yards, the Senegalese winger saw his effort palmed over the bar by an assured Alisson.
In the 52nd minute Liverpool had their first shot on target as Andy Robertson tested Ben Foster from the left side of the box. It briefly put the Watford defence into a state of chaos but the Hornets were jubilant only 90 seconds later as they took the lead.
Doucoure latched on to a deep Masina throw-in into the Liverpool box. The number 16 took the ball to the byline and managed to find Sarr, gambling at the front post, ahead of Robertson. Four yards out, Sarr made no mistake for his third goal in five appearances at Vicarage Road.
It was the first time Liverpool had conceded the opening goal of a Premier league game since November 2nd. But one soon became two as Liverpool went two goals behind in a league game for the first time since March 2018 only five minutes later.
Pereyra found Deeney in the Watford half, and in the blink of an eye, and with a hint of fortune, the Watford captain hooked a through-ball on to an onrushing Sarr. Running beyond the Liverpool defence and with only Alisson to beat, Sarr took one touch to compose himself before calmly lifting the ball over the Liverpool goalkeeper to extend Watford’s lead.
Liverpool would not go down quietly and in the 66th minute, Adam Lallana struck the post on the volley from 20 yards. It was a warning that Watford could not rest on their laurels and they did not.
In the 72nd minute, Sarr intercepted an Alexander-Arnold back-pass to Alisson in the Liverpool box. Drawing out the goalkeeper, Sarr help up the ball and turned provider for Deeney who calmly slotted home Watford’s third goal from 16 yards. It was Deeney’s 43rd goal in the top division – 3rd in Watford’s all-time list – and first against Liverpool. It was also the first time Liverpool had conceded three goals in a league game since December 2017.
Man of the match, Sarr had one more opportunity to seal his hat-trick but it wasn’t to be as he sprung the offside trap in the 81st minute, only to see his effort drift inches wide of the post. However, it didn’t matter, the damage had already been done.
Liverpool’s 44-game unbeaten run was over, whilst Watford are dreaming again of survival as they moved out of the relegation zone on goal-difference. Football is a crazy sport.
Takeaways from the match
Watford keep hopes alive… For now
With only two more games left this season against those in and around them in the relegation places, Watford were staring relegation in the face before today.
The Hornets face Norwich City at home in the middle of April, followed two weeks later by a trip to West Ham United. Between now and the end of the season, they also face Leicester City, Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal. If current form coming into this game wasn’t already daunting, the fixture list would be. The two together spell danger.
But if there is one thing football is known for, it’s unpredictability.
With victories for Norwich City last night, West Ham United today and a draw for Bournemouth at home to Chelsea, Watford were looking at being cast adrift in the relegation zone, three-points from safety.
90 minutes, three goal and three points later, Watford are again right back in the mix and dreaming of Premier league survival. Only time will tell how important this win could be for the Hornets.
The Value of a recognised Right-Back
In the 21st minute, Sarr and Doucoure were struggling to find space to manufacture a cross. Up popped Femenia, deep in the Liverpool half, providing support to stretch the Liverpool defence.
Femenia was closely followed by Sadio Mane, Klopp’s attacking talisman, but Watford were able to get the ball into the box and test Liverpool once more.
The Watford attack ultimately came to nothing, but it demonstrated the value of an attacking right-back, a qualified wing-back. The likes of Adrian Mariappa and Dawson were satisfactory stand-ins, but they were no substitute for the real thing.
Femenia’s performance was, unsurprisingly, over-shadowed by Sarr’s, but it should not be left unnoticed.
Over the 90 minutes, Femenia found himself up against Roberto Firmino, Andy Robertson, Alexander-Arnold, Salah and Mane. Not once did the Spaniard shy away from the challenge. In fact, he thrived. Over 90 minutes, Femenia had 46 touches with 4 clearances and 4 interceptions.
Femenia is obviously only one part of a Watford defensive performance that kept Liverpool to only 7 attempts and one shot on target but it was his positioning and resilience that formed the foundation of Watford’s victory.
In the first 30 minutes, Deulofeu was unplayable. Watford’s number 7 switched sides at will to pick up the ball, tormented Lovren with his pace, and forced Alexander-Arnold back into a more traditional right-back role. Liverpool were rattled.
Defensively, Deulofeu was disciplined and ably supported by Adam Masina at left-back. Deulofeu made more recoveries (8) in 30 minutes than any other player did in 45. However, as Watford’s winger looked to press Van Dijk on the edge of the Liverpool box, his knee was knocked sideways and Deulofeu was left lying on the floor, to be stretchered off the pitch five minutes later.
Deulofeu set the standard for the Watford performance and Sarr carried the attacking burden thereon.
After the game, Deeney was stoic in his assessment:
“We’re a very tough outfit to beat… we grafted for the second balls… when you’ve got the pace of Sarr, you’ve always got a chance… it’s very difficult to stop him… he forces people back… but it don’t mean anything if you beat Liverpool and go down.”
And go down Watford shall if they don’t build on this performance. But with Femenia and Sarr in the side, Watford can beat anybody.