That the best player on the pitch in the first half was, as a sort of amalgamation of both of them, Evans and Soyuncu (EvanSoyuncu?), is testament to how this game really developed. Not because either of them had an outstanding game, or did anything truly special, but they were placed in an incredibly difficult position by Liverpool, and somehow kept it equal until Mane finally broke through. You could put it to the lack of accuracy on the final pass, which Liverpool has been suffering from with some consistency this season thus far, but even so, they had to be there, time after time after time.
Liverpool were killing it all over the pitch, except in the box.
And this trend continued in the second half. I just looked up the match stats to confirm my impression, but when Maddison scored his late goal, it was Leicester’s first – and ultimately, only – shot on goal. And it represented fully fifty percent of their total attempts. Let’s all be honest here – the Foxes are a very, very good team. I still fancy them to get into Champions League football next year, that’s how good they are. Yet throughout most of this game, they looked downright miserable. It was the sort of game that Manchester City wins by a four goal margin, but Liverpool never really does that anymore, except, well, except when it has to do it.
Which really sums it up for me. I’m looking at the last four games (excluding the MK Dons one, which I never got to watch here in the US), and I see a different victory in each one. Against Chelsea, it was a matter of withstanding pressure, then outclassing the opponent. With Sheffield, Liverpool had to grind out a scrappy win. Red Bull asked entirely different questions, turning over a seemingly insurmountable lead just like the Reds themselves are famous for doing, and in that game, it was a matter of refusing to collapse mentally in the face of a massive tide of momentum (yo, Barca, might want to travel to Salzburg for some lessons). And today, it was a matter of applying pressure from the get-go and never letting go, until the team made its own luck.
Which Sadio Mane made sure of.
Dear me, he was fabulous to watch today. There was a sort of angry determination on his face from the first minute, and he was everywhere. It was no wonder he scored the first goal. He also prevented a few big opportunities playing as right back and left back and center half and containing midfielder. Between him and Virgil, I have to tip my hat off, again, to Southampton. What a Liverpool treasure of a scouting team they have over there. And then the moment came, in the ninety-fourth minute of a ninety-minute game, and he has the presence of mind to accept a soft tackle in the box in exactly the right way to draw the call. You can’t get any more focused than that. He would be my man of the match, but he isn’t, because the man who converted the spot-kick was just as good. James Milner was simply outstanding, and hitting the net, in that moment, as calmly and as decisively as he did – that just put an exclamation point on his incredible performance throughout this match. If I could award it to both of them, I would.
Speaking of outstanding performances, when did Lovren open last? Did you see him today? My goodness, it’s easy to forget sometimes that he is the only player on this team that has played in a world cup final. But then he comes on because Matip is injured and Gomez is not really up to it, and delivers a rock-solid game with multiple crucial interventions that, I would argue, were the primary reason behind Leicester’s inability to make more attempts on goal in the rare moments when they did seem threatening. Oh, and another good word for Adrian, who robbed Jamie Vardy so casually that for a moment I had to make sure I wasn’t watching Matt Damon’s Linus in Ocean’s Eleven.
And so, in the end, the Reds made their own luck, showing a different mode of winning than they did in each of the last three games. With so many tricks to pull, even a Terry Benedict – sorry, Brendan Rodgers – with intent can’t stop you. And nor, if I may post a prediction, will Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.