Roberto Firmino, Liverpool start slow, turn up the heat in second half at Watford
WATFORD, England -- Three points from Vicarage Road on Liverpool's 3-0 win over Watford in the Premier League.
1. Liverpool ramp it up to see off Watford
This game marked the start of a crucial few weeks for Liverpool. Wednesday sees them travel to Paris for an important Champions League clash, then they have nine games in just over a month, including huge clashes with Everton, Napoli, Manchester United, Arsenal and Manchester City.
It could very easily have started badly, but once again they found a way to collect three points against a Watford side who have been one of the Premier League's best performers this season. A scrappy finish from Mohamed Salah, a glorious Trent Alexander-Arnold free kick from long range and a clincher by Roberto Firmino were enough for a 3-0 win at Vicarage Road, keeping them just in touch with Man City.
The first half was a grim affair, Watford perhaps marginally the more threatening team, but neither side found any fluency. The best chances came just before the break, when first Dejan Lovren slipped, forcing Alisson to make a fine save from Roberto Pereyra. Later Sadio Mane hooked an acrobatic volley towards goal, which Ben Foster pushed behind. From the subsequent corner, Mo Salah nipped into some space at the back post to force another good stop from Foster, but just as things were warming up the half came to an end.
After the break Watford had strong claims for a penalty: Will Hughes went down on the edge of the box after a challenge by Andrew Robertson, but both referee and linesman stood still. Replays suggested they were wrong to.
But the deadlock was finally broken in the 67th minute: Roberto Firmino fed Mane, who cut it back for Salah to shoot through Foster and into the net. Just.
And then the points were sealed in phenomenal fashion: Alexander-Arnold's reputation as one of the country's best young defenders is well known, but he's also one of the better free-kick strikers too. He proved that again, stepping up when perhaps everyone was watching Salah, to leave Foster rooted from 30 yards.
The closing stages were made a touch trickier after Jordan Henderson was sent off for a second yellow, but they grabbed another when a superb counterattack by Robertson eventually found its way to Firmino, who headed home.
Liverpool remain two points behind City having rarely played to their best this season: Jurgen Klopp and Co. will probably take that.
2. Firmino shows his importance
You could make a case for quite a few players to be Liverpool's most important. Virgil van Dijk, because he holds their defence together. Mo Salah, because of his 44 goals last season. Alisson, because of the gulf between him and Loris Karius.
And then there's Roberto Firmino. The Brazilian's case is strong because of how his performances impact on those around him, particularly Salah who darts into the areas left vacant by Firmino's smart movement.
It always feels like a slightly backhanded compliment when discussing Firmino, that his runs and use of the ball create space for those around him: he is clearly a fine forward in his own right, not just a conduit for his colleagues.
But generally speaking, when Firmino plays well, Liverpool's front three plays well. This might be why they haven't hit the attacking heights of last season, as for much of this term he's been a yard or so short of his best form.
He started this game in much the same fashion, passes just a little awry, runs not quite right, and it impacted those around him. Perhaps it had something to do with playing as the slightly withdrawn man in a 4-2-3-1, but whatever the reason, Firmino looked off the pace.
That changed in the second half. Not everything was perfect, but he seemed more decisive, more incisive, and it was his superb pass that created the chance for Liverpool's breakthrough first goal.
This run of games will shape Liverpool's season, and they need their big players at their best. If Firmino can build on how he played in the second half here, they will be much more confident about how things will pan out.
3. Watford show good and bad in home defeat
Naturally, a defeat to Liverpool won't cause much panic in the Watford ranks.
They are overachieving to be where they are, on the shoulder of the elite and with an outside chance of sneaking into the European places.
They may feel particularly aggrieved by the officiating in this game, denied a penalty in the second half, and most of the crowd at Vicarage Road will probably tell you that every 50-50 seemed to go the way of the visitors. There was far more ire directed at the referee than the Hornets' players.
They shouldn't completely absolve themselves of blame, though. Excuses can be made, but too often in this game the Watford defence left goalkeeper Foster exposed. The former England keeper had to make a string of terrific saves, and while he might have been at fault for Liverpool's first goal, he could do little with the second and was left virtually alone in trying to prevent their third.
Of course, it might be a little harsh to criticise them excessively for conceding three goals to Liverpool, but this is not the freewheeling forward line of last season.
Rather than the referee, the main culprits for this defeat were Watford's backline.