Blow for blow, stride for stride, win for win, Liverpool and Manchester City remain locked together in their race for the Premier League. City will still win the title if it wins its five remaining games but the sense is that it will probably now have to, and that run includes a home game against Tottenham Hotspur and an away derby against Manchester United. Titles are often won in the margins but this was still a big day for Liverpool, matching City’s 3-1 win at Crystal Palace with a 2-0 victory over Chelsea which, on paper at least, was by far the hardest of its remaining fixtures.
Two goals in the space of three minutes shortly after half time, one for Sadio Mane and the second a brilliant strike from Mohamed Salah, won it for Liverpool but for the third match in row, the man who turned the game was Jordan Henderson. When, limping slightly, he went off for James Milner with 13 minutes remaining Henderson was treated to a standing ovation. There’s no hero like one who has previously been disregarded.
Anfield was even more emotionally charged than usual, with Monday marking the 30th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster in which 96 people died in a crush at an FA Cup semifinal. The minute’s silence before kick off was utterly silent, so silent you could year the rustling of the wind over the cards held aloft by the Kenny Dalglish Stand and the Kop to form the words “30 years” and “96”.
Manchester City’s relatively straightforward win at Crystal Palace earlier in the afternoon had reinforced the need for Liverpool to do the same, even if its fixture list does seem to get easier after this. There was the familiar fast start, but with a stiff wind blowing over the Anfield Road End, both sides seemed to struggle for rhythm. The memory of 2014, when Steven Gerrard’s slip against Chelsea was instrumental in Liverpool losing that title race to Manchester City, had hung over the game and there was even a moment reminiscent of that Demba Ba goal as Willian, who had scored the second Chelsea goal back then, ran bewilderingly free, only to hesitate as he turned infield allowing enough defenders to get back that, under pressure, he fired wide.
To say there was anxiety at the break would perhaps be to overstate it but there was certainly and awareness that, the longer the second half went on, the greater the possibility of Liverpool becoming edgy, as it had in drawing all those games between late January and early March. But once again, it was Henderson’s influence that proved decisive.
Since Jurgen Klopp arrived at Liverpool, Henderson has spent most of his time playing at the back of midfield, as what Klopp calls a “number 6.” There has long been a suspicion that it was not a role that came particularly naturally to him, but Henderson, dutiful club man that he is, tried to adapt. This season, though, as Liverpool has pressed with less fury, adopting a slightly more conservative approach, Henderson’s shortcomings, his lack of the instinctive positional awareness required, were exposed and, heavily criticized by fans, he faded from the team.
His response was to approach Klopp and suggest he may be better on the right of the midfield three, where his energy and drive could be deployed to full effect. Henderson came off the bench against Southampton in that position and turned a 1-1 draw into a 3-1 win. He started the Champions League game against Porto on Tuesday and set up the opener with a brilliant through ball to Salah. And here, five minutes into the second half, Henderson capitalized on the space created by a Salah thrust, took an extra touch with the Kop urging him to shoot and stood up a chip to the back post where Mane headed in.
The roar was extraordinary and was still reverberating when Salah picked up the ball on the right three minutes later. There are times when atmosphere itself can seem to divert the course of games and this was one of them. Salah, while still having a very good season, has not been quite at the astonishing level of the last one. At times he has seemed a little short of confidence. But here he wobbled towards Emerson Palmeri before unleashing a shot from the angle of the penalty area that flashed beyond Kepa’s right hand and into the top corner, a stunning goal, one that, if Liverpool does go on to win the title, will be replayed for as long as football is still remembered.
Cardiff, Huddersfield, Newcastle and Wolves await for Liverpool. All it can do is win those and hope City slips up somewhere. But it will have escaped nobody’s notice that when Liverpool ended a 24-year wait for the title in 1947, its longest drought before the present one which now extends to 29 years, its opponent on the final day was also Wolves.