Every kind of terrain has been crossed at some time or other by Liverpool in their long, elusive search for the title which once arrived with the regularity of a No 26 bus on the city’s Scotland Road.
There is a resonance, for example, about this particular quest coinciding with the 30th anniversary of the day when 96 fans did not come home from Hillsborough. A landmark which led to Sunday’s mosaic, the immaculate minute’s silence, and to the wise erudition of Jurgen Klopp’s programme notes.
‘English is my first language,’ he wrote, ‘but even if I was writing in German I do not think I would have the words to appropriately serve this situation. Even now it doesn’t make sense.’
Liverpool beat Chelsea 2-0 at Anfield on Sunday to return to the top of the Premier League
Anfield paid tribute to the 96 fans who never came home from Hillsborough in April 1989
This is precisely how it was five years ago, when the 25th anniversary was being marked, the Hillsborough inquests were bringing some finality and top-of-the-table Liverpool thought they were going to win the league as they went into their home match against Chelsea. There was ‘a feel of the old Liverpool’ about the place, Brendan Rodgers said at the time.
What happened next, of course, was what Steven Gerrard later described as the ‘bog standard square ball’ from Mamadou Sakho, which he slipped under, handing Chelsea’s Demba Ba the winner, Manchester City the title and by nightfall left him in tears in his car, beneath the Centenary Stand.
What is happening this time feels materially different. Someone recalled last week the way that Rodgers’ had contacted the players’ mothers that Spring, asking them to write a message about their sons, to be read out by him before each game. It raised the sense of this being something exceptional; a now-or-never moment. Klopp is so averse to raising expectations that talk of a title has become tantamount to slander in his court and this was the day when an ice cold equanimity truly told.
It was certainly as severe a test of composure as they come. The patch of Anfield turf where Gerrard fell that day was traversed repeatedly by Eden Hazard in a first half where the Liverpool’s attempts to convert possession into goals were akin to trying to opening a wine bottle with a knife: lots of effort around the edges but no meaningful incision.
Hazard was far sharper than anyone else – the best player on the field, with the world-class Willian present to help him build the counter-attacking chances. But standing in the Gerrard space was Fabinho, a player who epitomized the Liverpool team’s composure as much as any. The headlines will be taken today by Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino, a quite outstanding contributor in the second half, but the Brazilian was key to the shackling of Hazard.
Manager Jurgen Klopp was animated as ever as he watched on from the touchline at Anfield
Liverpool fans behind Klopp looked full of belief as they watched their team claim a big victory
Sadio Mane (left) headed Liverpool in front on 51 minutes after a tight opening half on Sunday
Moments after scoring their first goal the Reds struck again as Mohamed Salah hit a scorcher
If it is pivotal moments you are searching for, consider his intervention in the game’s ninth minute, chasing back to halt the run of Hazard, just breaking into full stride as he powered towards Liverpool’s half.
The Brazilian placed a foot around the forward to take the ball away, then gestured his sentiments about the claims for a free kick from the Belgian, who was rolling on the grass. They were robust. The referee waved the game on. Gerrard used to call the first challenge a ‘welcome to Anfield tackle’. This was something more measured; one of four tackles he made in a difficult first half.
This was the same midfielder who struggled badly as the midfield shield when Chelsea knocked Liverpool out of the Carabao Cup here in September. In the early part of the season Klopp did not trust him to shield Liverpool’s defence alone, though his assuredness allowed Jordan Henderson to operate as a decisive No 8 and Naby Keita to advance.
‘It was the plan,’ Klopp said. ‘Henderson slightly higher and then it gives Fabinho and Naby different space. Defending this centre [against] Sarriball is really difficult. From first moment it was there. You see it from the first second it is clicking.’
Salah was embraced by Klopp after the Egyptian was substituted off in the dying seconds
The midfield shield was required because Hazard against Joel Matip was certainly not a match made in Anfield heaven. The forward in question twisted back and forth around the centre half on 20 minutes but shot at Alisson Becker. Hazard was frankly unplayable during what was, from a Liverpool perspective, a quite desperate period around the hour mark.
By then, the cushion had been established – Henderson seizing his opportunity high up the field with a beautifully crafted cross for Sadio Mane; Sala providing his piece of magic.
The ‘slip’ did come, though far later than the moment in first half injury time which will always be seared across Gerrard’s soul. The game had seven minutes to run when Andy Robertson let the ball slip under his foot, though it was the benign Gonzalo Higuain, not Ba, lurking behind him this time.
Klopp looked up to the supporters behind him, laughed hard, and those nearest him in the Main Stand enjoyed sharing the joke. An excruciated Robertson signalled apologies. The game and this enervating title race moved on.
The Kop sang ‘Liverpool, top of the league’ and at the end Klopp ran to them, animated, throwing three of his now legendary excited fist shakes in their direction. His players picked their way quietly behind him, a picture of the calm which keeps alive what, with four games to play, is a very real chance to write themselves into history.
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