Firmino goal sees Liverpool beat West Brom, close in on Champions League
WEST BROMWICH, England -- Three thoughts on Liverpool's 1-0 win at West Brom in the Premier League.
1. Top-four finish looms ever larger for Liverpool
First Stoke, now West Brom. In successive weeks, Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool have negotiated two of the Premier League's toughest destinations to collect six points that keep them in third place, two points ahead of Manchester City.
"We've got Tony Pulis," home fans had sung in the opening minutes, as if to signal what type of occasion this would be. Just as the West Brom manager prescribes, it was gritty and grinding, with his team relying on the counter and their familiar free kick, corner and throw-in routines for most of their attacks.
Roberto Firmino, the winning goal scorer, and Philippe Coutinho both had early sighters for Liverpool, but so did Hal Robson-Kanu, leading the line for West Brom. Nacer Chadli should have put the hosts ahead in the 24th minute but instead completely missed the ball from close range after Craig Dawson and Matt Phillips had combined.
Liverpool neared half-time having been largely unable to escape the vice-like grip of their opponents but then came the rarity of West Brom being caught out by a set piece. After a foul by Chris Brunt on Divock Origi, James Milner's delivery was flicked on Lucas Leiva and in stole Firmino to head in. Pulis looked positively enraged by his team being suckered.
There were loud boos from home fans and referee Jon Moss was a frequent target for ire, having waved away first-half claims for a Dejan Lovren back pass, which actually came off the defender's thigh. Moss had also given a free kick to Liverpool when Lucas and Robson-Kanu collided during a West Brom attack; home supporters demanded a red card for Liverpool's longest-serving player.
After half-time, when Pulis might have been expected to revise his approach, Liverpool continued to be the team looking to score and they should have put the game beyond reach of a team that has not scored for a month. Milner blasted over a 57th-minute shot when Firmino had laid a second goal on a plate. Ten minutes after that, Joel Matip missed a header granted by yet more uncharacteristic West Brom laxness on a dead-ball situation, another Milner free-kick.
Simon Mignolet in Liverpool's goal was not called upon to make a save until the 80th minute, when narrowing the angle and saving with his legs from Matt Phillips. West Brom's push for an equaliser was concerted yet lacked much in the way of subtlety. The best chance in the closing stages fell to Liverpool substitute Alberto Moreno but, with home goalkeeper Ben Foster upfield for a last-ditch corner, the long-distance shot rolled wide.
2. Boys from Brazil inspire victory
Last week at Stoke, Klopp was forced to keep Firmino and Coutinho on the bench, with the Brazilian internationals suffering from fatigue and sickness, respectively. The emergency button was pressed with Liverpool 1-0 down at half-time, and both scored to turn the game around.
Both clearly recovered, they started at The Hawthorns and added much-needed zest to a team lacking Sadio Mane's fleet-footedness, Adam Lallana's dashes of creativity and Jordan Henderson's passing and leadership; the three absent players have been arguably Klopp's top performers of the campaign.
Coutinho and Firmino, playing either side of striker Divock Origi, were carrying their team's hopes, and their best moment of the early stages came when Coutinho intercepted the ball in midfield and released Firmino. From an angle probably a degree or two too acute, he could not stop himself dragging his effort wide of the post.
Soon after that, Coutinho missed a similar opportunity. When space was so sparing, Liverpool required rather better, yet the pair kept plugging away, with Coutinho making a series of winding dribbles, though usually finding himself crowded out.
Firmino, his game based far more on arriving on the scene at the right time than his partner, then prised the match open with his goal on half-time. And it had been another Brazilian, Lucas, far less recognised for his creative abilities and playing as a screen in front of Liverpool's defenders, who supplied that chance.
3. Few chances created by negative West Brom
West Brom began the day in eighth, 44 points to the good and despite losing their last three matches without scoring a goal. The statistics suggest Pulis' teams eye their summer once the 40-point mark is reached, though he still enjoys putting one over the big boys.
The final wins of his previous two seasons in charge at West Brom came in beating Chelsea in 2014-15 and then Manchester United last March. In his attempts to down Liverpool and Klopp, with whom he has had a couple of past skirmishes, Pulis made three changes, including swapping in Robson-Kanu for Salomon Rondon, goalless since December.
Veteran central defender Gareth McAuley's status as joint-top scorer (on seven) with Rondon marked out from where the home side's threat came and those dead-ball situations have been something of a weak point for Liverpool this season. But they coped here, just about.
In "Pulis-ball," it is not enough that Matt Phillips is a fine crosser of the ball and good at free kicks; he must also launch throws into the opposition box with the velocity of an Olympic hammer thrower, which he did from the right-hand touchline whenever possible. The same went for Chris Brunt on the left flank.
Perhaps Pulis has already signed off this season with a win over Arsenal. That came on March 18.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.