Erling Haaland quickly became a Premier League darling and his record start to the season quickly elevated him to the status of arguably the most dangerous player in the division.
At the same time, Mohamed Salah has largely survived the bad start to his campaign. But after a mid-week Champions League treble, the striker turned things around when Liverpool beat defending champions Manchester City 1-0 at Anfield on Sunday.
Salah’s winning goal was just the tip of the iceberg. His performance showed that he was indeed back and Liverpool’s morale proved that they are still – despite what the table says – one of the top two teams in England.
The broader context of the game was nothing like what we’ve come to expect from this matchup, which has become the Premier League’s biggest event in recent years and even determined the eventual title assignment.
Jurgen Klopp admitted on Friday that while in some respects this match could well again be title decider, Liverpool’s trophy hopes will not be at stake – in fact, such a task is certainly beyond their reach even after a win.
As Liverpool entered the game 12th in the table, their pride was at stake. A lot has changed since the Reds had too much for City in the Community Shield a week before the start of the season; perception of Haaland, in the first place.
At the time, most would have predicted another head-to-head shootout between City and Liverpool for the title, though the relative lack of danger at Anfield on Sunday did nothing to detract from the exciting, fiery fight.
Klopp highlighted the potential importance of a crowded Anfield and the stadium was certainly rocking. Even minor duel successes of the hosts were welcomed as goals from the very beginning; it was brutal, with beefy tackle flying all over the place, while on the touchline two managers snarled and barked at bad decisions and questionable referee decisions like rabid rottweilers – Klopp’s late red card wasn’t particularly surprising.
Of course, at City, all eyes were on Haaland. To be fair, he more than proved his point after a rather horrendous performance against Liverpool in the Community Shield by his standards. Though for someone as ultra-competitive as the Norwegian, some part of him was probably still desperate to be decisive because of that day.
City were definitely keen to give him that opportunity and it may have been to their detriment in the first half. The visitors seemed too busy looking for the big blonde hippo, as if victory would only count if Haaland played the decisive role.
In one such incident, a gap was opened for Phil Foden, but instead of the first throw after Haaland served him, he called back, ran into danger, and then the attack stopped.
It’s not that Holland didn’t stand a chance. One cross from behind Virgil van Dijk’s back disturbed Alisson, who should have scored with a header from Kevin de Bruyne’s cross but hit the keeper.
On the other hand, Salah has been keen to remind people that he is the best striker in the Premier League. The Egyptian took the game to City and was electrified in the first half. His movement, power and dribbling were a concern for the visiting defense – the problem was that opportunities were not always missed.
The situation changed at the beginning of the second half. Salah spun Ruben Diaz around and grabbed a pass from Thiago Alcántara into City’s halfway, driving him into goal. It looked like he was destined to stir up trouble in the Kop outside the net he was aiming for, but a wonderful fingertip save from Ederson kept him out.
Alisson soon made an equally important stop to thwart Haaland on the other end, having only recently seen Foden’s goal disallowed due to a build-up foul by Norwegian strikers.
At this point, City dominated more than ever, but Salah looked like a threat throughout the break. Another opportunity is sure to present itself, and it was this moment that brought Liverpool a breakthrough.
Alisson’s long shot landed right on Salah, who used his body brilliantly to get away from Joao Cancelo before rushing towards the net. Ederson was unable to repeat his former heroism – Salah converted in cold blood.
City responded by ratcheting up the pressure. Both teams quarreled, Bernardo Silva and Salah quarreled with each other. Klopp has been sent off. Diogo Jota crashed into the ground and fell onto the stretcher. The overbearing Van Dyck denied Holland a specific goal.
Liverpool held their own against the backdrop of an exciting and tense final, looking forward to a win that could change their season. But beyond that, this fixture was a showcase of that quality.
Salah’s brilliant moment suited the decisive action, although both sides put on an exceptional performance. Joe Gomez, Van Dijk, James Milner, Alisson, Ederson, Haaland, De Bruyne – the list goes on. Everyone showed their varied qualities and we were once again reminded why this match has become such a highly anticipated match in recent years.
Forget about the table. Liverpool are one of the top two teams in England and Salah remains one of the top two strikers in the Premier League.