It would be too simplistic to say Liverpool responded to the test of nerve set by Manchester City. Jürgen Klopp’s contenders have been doing that since the first day of this enthralling title race.
This was a test of nerve, quality and composure set by Burnley, the match officials plus the elements and they delivered on all counts to remind the champions that, as Klopp defiantly put it, “nobody gets rid of us”.
Liverpool remain on City’s shoulder courtesy of an impressive but far from routine home victory over Sean Dyche’s side. Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané both scored twice to lift Liverpool to 73 points from 30 games for only the third time in their illustrious history – the previous two occasions ended with the title at Anfield – and serve as ideal preparation for Wednesday’s Champions League trip to Bayern Munich.
Burnley scored with two of their three shots on target yet were more prolific at shooting themselves in the foot. Their defending was dreadful, undermining an otherwise encouraging away display, and explains why they stand only two points above the relegation zone.
Burnley made Liverpool fight all the way for a victory that was imperative with City moving four points clear at the summit on Saturday. The conditions were awkward too although Klopp had no cause to lament the weather on this occasion with his team displaying the character and the cutting edge demanded.
The challenge for the title chasers began before Anfield had truly roused itself for the noon kick off. Joël Matip conceded a cheap early corner with a wayward header under minimal pressure.
Ashley Westwood swung the resulting set-piece into a crowded six-yard area and directly into the far corner of Liverpool’s net. The small pocket of Burnley. supporters erupted and so did Alisson, who had been sandwiched between Jack Cork and James Tarkowski as the ball entered his domain and unable to leap with a six foot one inch defender on his back. Liverpool waited for referee Andre Marriner to penalise a clear foul. He pointed to the centre circle instead, sending the Brazilian goalkeeper apoplectic and into the notebook for dissent.
Dyche, channelling the spirit of Nat Lofthouse, described it as a “tough call” for the referee. It was a bad and potentially loaded call against Klopp’s team, though it gave them a minimum of 84 minutes to channel their grievance in the most appropriate way. Burnley helped them along the way with several defensive lapses that squandered the major decision in their favour. Tom Heaton was the chief culprit on an afternoon to forget for the England international.
Liverpool levelled when the visiting keeper failed to intercept Mohamed Salah’s low cross from the by-line, flapping at the ball and diverting it away from Tarkowski with the defender primed to clear. Firmino gratefully converted the gift at close range for his tenth Premier League goal of the campaign.
The hosts, commanding from the moment they fell behind, benefited from another error to edge ahead. Jeff Hendrick was the guilty party with a weak touch on an Ashley Barnes’ header that played Phil Bardsley into trouble.
Adam Lallana launched himself into the full back’s clearance, diverting it to Salah inside the penalty area. Charlie Taylor reacted with a sharp challenge but the ball broke for Mané who curled an emphatic finish inside Heaton’s far post to overturn Burnley’s controversial advantage.
Lallana’s inclusion ahead of Xherdan Shaqiri and Naby Keita was met with heavy scepticism before kickoff yet he provided the creativity and bite that Liverpool’s midfield has lacked in recent away fixtures.
It was Lallana’s cross-field ball to Salah that enabled the Egypt international to exchange passes with Georginio Wijnaldum before crossing for Firmino’s equaliser. His challenge on Bardsley proved a key moment. “The game-changer,” as Klopp put it.
The wind, yes that again, was an added complication for both sides on a wild Merseyside day of sun, blizzards and gales in the course of 90 minutes. One raking pass from Virgil van Dijk appeared destined for touch only to blow back into the path of Salah.
Salah was prominent but again without reward in front of goal, failing to score for the fifth consecutive game. A first in his Liverpool career. Heaton made sure that mini-drought continued with a fine save from Salah’s first time flick late on.
By then Liverpool had the cushion of a third goal courtesy of another mistake from the Burnley keeper. A weak goal kick by Heaton, perhaps caught up in the wind, sailed straight to Salah who raced through on goal only to be halted by Taylor’s precise tackle. The ball broke into Firmino’s path who prodded home his second gift-wrapped invitation of the game.
Burnley made a fight of the contest throughout with Dwight McNeil enjoying a fine, polished game on the left of midfield. Barnes was a consistent thorn too and the visitors set up what may have been a nervous finale when Johann Berg Gudmundsson converted a pass from fellow substitute Matej Vydra from close range. Burnley’s hopes of a dramatic recovery were dashed within seconds.
Liverpool sub Daniel Sturridge released Mané through an open visiting defence and the Senegal striker rounded Heaton to seal a hard-fought but invaluable victory.