Expansive football meets pragmatism as Liverpool aim for table-topping response

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It continues to be a season like no other for Liverpool and despite letting an opportunity go begging the Reds could yet go clear at the top as pragmatism meets expansive football.

Would it be remiss of us to ask Blackburn if we could have Harvey Elliott back?

Diogo Jota and Kostas Tsimikas out, Alisson Becker and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain back. Naby Keita missing and Joel Matip withdrawn at half time at Craven Cottage. It seems to be a perpetually revolving door injury policy at Anfield now.

There haven’t been many campaigns like this in my Liverpool watching existence. A season where the injuries are relentless and you are constantly on high alert for the next to fall.

The season of 1980/81 springs to mind, as does 1988/89, to an extent and 1991/92 most certainly had its similarities, in terms of injuries, rather than style of football. Comfortingly, each of those seasons ended with a trophy.

This one is priming itself to be a demolition derby of a season and Sunday’s draw, away to Fulham, was a missed opportunity in the wake of Tottenham shipping a late equaliser at Crystal Palace a couple of hours before Jurgen Klopp’s team took to the pitch.

LONDON, ENGLAND - Sunday, December 13, 2020: Liverpool's Roberto Firmino looks dejected during the FA Premier League match between Fulham FC and Liverpool FC at Craven Cottage. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

With the chance to reclaim top spot, we endured a first half that offered a combination of a steadily awakening Fulham finding their stride and a Liverpool that struggled to string three passes together. Despite conceding seven at Villa Park, this arguably represented our worst football of the season.

We kind of found our range during the last 10 minutes of the first half and played keep-ball for much of the second, eliminating the catalogue of basic errors of the opening 35 minutes or so.

The returning Alisson made an array of smart saves prior to conceding the opening goal. A compelling set of warnings that went unheeded by the 10 Liverpool players in front of him.

Ambiguity reigned, however. A fine finish by Bobby Decordova-Reid was a richly deserved reward for the bright start Fulham made, yet there was a push on Mohamed Salah in the build-up. It was a two-handed push and it elicited the attacking team an advantage. As a double whammy, the ball was then ricocheted off Salah before being slide ruled to Reid.

All of this came after an unnecessarily long-drawn-out VAR consultation over a perfectly time tackle by Fabinho.

This continuing encroachment of VAR must reach a breaking point eventually. If you can’t spot a clear issue with a decision within 30 seconds, then the issue isn’t a clear one at all.

LONDON, ENGLAND - Sunday, December 13, 2020: Referee Andre Marriner during the FA Premier League match between Fulham FC and Liverpool FC at Craven Cottage. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Slow-motion being used as a tool within VAR is also misleading. Slow the footage of the push on Salah down and it seems tinged with amateur dramatics, but when seen in real-time it is anything but.

Stand a man in front of a crane, swing a wrecking ball at him and the damage will be significant. Show the footage in slow motion and there is a good chance that it will appear that he made a meal of it.

There is a stop-go animation effect at play. Perhaps we’d be better off referring all VAR calls to Nick Park and Aardman Animations rather than Lee Mason at Stockley Park.

A point was eventually gleaned from a difficult game. Salah sneaking a penalty beneath Alphonse Areola. It was a hold your breath moment in a game of increasing frustrations. Jordan Henderson had earlier squandered an excellent opportunity.

Fulham, after giving Manchester City a run for their money, are feeling a little less overawed about the Premier League.

It made for another away day where you’re left with an overall feeling that we could have snared an undeserved three points. Would Fulham, like Brighton before them, have deserved to lose? No, of course not. Does that mean we shouldn’t be ruthless about such things, though? No, of course not.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - Saturday, March 10, 2018: Liverpool's manager J¸rgen Klopp seems unimpressed with the words of Manchester United's manager Jose Mourinho during the FA Premier League match between Manchester United FC and Liverpool FC at Old Trafford. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

While on one hand, we need to be displaying the ruthlessness of champions, given the injury problems we face, on the other it is quite the miracle of Christmas that we will be heading into Wednesday evening with a win being enough to hand us a three-point lead at the top of the table.

Easier said than done, however.

Expansive football is suddenly being challenged by pragmatism once again. Klopp’s players are being stress-tested, Pep Guardiola isn’t seeing everything fall into his lap as was once the case, while Mikel Arteta is now under intense scrutiny as Arsenal experience their worst start to a league season in four and half decades.

Are the free thinkers in danger of going out of fashion? Even Barcelona, the paragon of footballing virtue are suffering an identity crisis.

Jose Mourinho is very impressively playing the percentages with Tottenham. The North London side cashed in the expansion of Mauricio Pochettino to take a punt on winning something under a manager that has been a serial winner for almost two decades, yet is viewed as past his peak.

Yesterday’s man might not be ready to relinquish his claim on today though. Wednesday night will be interesting, not only in terms of a top of the table clash but as an indicator in just how the winds of football fashion are blowing.

Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier proudly holds the UEFA Cup (PA Images)

At a point of reflection for Liverpool, with the devastating loss of Gerard Houllier, so swiftly on the back of the death of Ray Clemence, Fulham paid tribute prior to kick-off to Papa Bouba Diop, a man who by all accounts was just a brilliant human being.

Football continues to lose its legends at an alarming rate.

I was lucky enough to be in Cardiff for the 2001 FA Cup final. My spec was right at the back of the North Stand, the end at which Michael Owen scored those two late goals. I was right in line with the penalty spot and it left you feeling like the conductor of proceedings.

It wasn’t me directing what was happening though. It was Houllier.

We’ve seen some of the biggest of days and nights since that day, but it was a red-hot afternoon in a city that should have kept the FA Cup final forever and it still feels as electric to me now as it did back then.

Sleep well, Ged.

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