Mohamed Salah and Liverpool sweep aside Bournemouth to reclaim top spot
Liverpool did not fluff their lines a third time. They returned to the top of the league with a slick and stylish victory that showcased the attacking talent they have at their disposal and made a useful dent in the goal-difference advantage Manchester City hold. City can regain the lead by beating Chelsea on Sunday, but Liverpool will then have a game in hand, a rest until the Champions League resumes with the visit of Bayern Munich, and the knowledge they can still overwhelm opponents when the need arises.
Bournemouth may not present the toughest of challenges away from home, but after the points recently dropped most Liverpool fans would have greeted any sort of win with relief. The results are all that really count at this stage of the title race, and Liverpool know if they keep winning there is nothing City can do, though this was a comfortable and controlled performance that could have produced a more emphatic scoreline and suggested plenty left in reserve. Just about the only disappointment for Jürgen Klopp and his players was a succession of missed chances at the end. With a little more composure in front of goal Liverpool could practically have wiped out the goal-difference deficit, and what a statement of intent that would have been.
The first goal came midway through the first half and changed the mood of the afternoon completely. In the 23 minutes that preceded it, Liverpool had shown diligence and patience but not much imagination in trying to break down Bournemouth’s low defensive block. The visitors found they could cope with build-up play that varied between predictable and clumsy, and when Mohamed Salah found pockets of space on the right his attempts on goal did not cause Artur Boruc undue concern.
The breakthrough, when it came, was simplicity itself, although Eddie Howe was probably right in claiming it was fractionally offside. A James Milner corner failed to beat the first defender, but when Naby Keïta calmly returned the ball to the right for the jobbing full-back to have another go he swung over a much better cross that Sadio Mané met with a firm downward header. It was his fourth goal in four games, and Mane showed his versatility a couple of minutes later by launching Liverpool’s next attack from close to the corner flag in his own half. A clever ball down the left channel found Roberto Firmino running into free space, and when the Brazilian looked up he was able to pick out Georginio Wijnaldum up in support. The midfielder should probably have gone for goal himself from a threatening position, though he appeared to lack confidence and moved the ball wider to Salah, who miscontrolled.
Wijnaldum did not make the same mistake when his next chance arrived 10 minutes later, courtesy of an inspired ball forward from Andy Robertson. Again in an unusually advanced position, Wijnaldum first showed neat control to reach the pass, then with the ball still bouncing spotted his opportunity to lift a shot over Boruc, who had advanced slightly from his line.
Bournemouth had stayed mostly compact after going a goal down but were obliged to come out a little with their deficit doubled. Before retiring to defensive duties the visitors had almost taken an early lead when Ryan Fraser tested Alisson in the second minute, but the goalkeeper beat away the shot. Salah brought a save from Boruc at the end of the first half as Liverpool tried to extend their lead, and Jefferson Lerma fired over the bar just before the interval with his side attempting to get back into the game.
Within three minutes of the restart Bournemouth’s hopes of a comeback were quashed when Liverpool pushed further ahead in exquisite style. Salah scored it, drilling a low shot into the bottom corner with his usual efficiency, though the sublime touches came from Keïta, with a superbly weighted ball forward into Firmino’s path, and Firmino himself, who dummied to shoot before casually backheeling the ball into space where he knew Salah would be waiting. It was the Egyptian’s 20th goal of the campaign in all competitions, making him the first Liverpool player since Luis Suárez to achieve the feat in successive seasons.
Salah hit the bar with only Boruc to beat as the game moved into its final quarter. The result was never in doubt, but when Keïta, Firmino and Trent Alexander-Arnold joined him in missing gilt-edged opportunities from close range in the closing minutes it meant Bournemouth were allowed to get off relatively lightly. A little more ruthlessness would not go amiss if this is to be Liverpool’s year.