For 46 minutes, Watford’s game plan had worked to perfection. Walter Mazzarri’s five men in defense and three in midfield had successfully suffocated every Liverpool move that had come its way. It had held Jurgen Klopp’s side at arms length and had been rewarded. So, when Lucas Leiva picked up the ball 40 yards out there was no concern.
The Brazilian spotted a surging run of his fellow holding midfielder, Emre Can, and sent a searching, diagonal pass into the penalty area. With Can’s back to goal Watford defenders Sebastian Prodl and Nordin Amrabat felt they were safe. Can had other ideas. The German measured the oncoming pass, threw himself backward acrobatically and connected with the ball, sending it flying into the top of the net passed a helpless Heurelho Gomes.
Vicarage Road was stunned into silence but for the traveling away fans who roared with surprised delight. Can jumped to his feet and sprinted toward the away dugout, sliding on his knees toward Klopp, who thumped his chest. He knew how vital this win was for Liverpool.
After Manchester United and Manchester City dropped points over the weekend, this was a chance for Liverpool to put its Champions League destiny in its own hands, cementing a place in the Premier League top four.
This bank holiday in Hertfordshire had provided an surprise opportunity following Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola’s teams drawing to Swansea City and Middlesbrough, respectively. But this also was a potential stumbling block for Klopp’s side, one that Liverpool frequently clips and falls flat on its face. Six of the seven defeats Liverpool has suffered this season have come against clubs in the bottom half of the table—the other inflicted by Southampton (ninth).
Watford, 13th and sitting comfortably on 40 points, offered painful memories to Klopp’s team. Liverpool’s last visit to Vicarage Road ended in a 3-0 defeat, humbled and humiliated two months into the German’s reign on Merseyside. It remains his heaviest defeat at the club.
The men on the score sheet that day, Nathan Ake and Odion Ighalo, have since left. The former in west London with Chelsea and the latter in China with Changchun Yatai. Quique Sanchez Flores, the man in the dugout that day, has also gone. Sacked by Watford in the summer after just three wins in the last 14 games of the 2015-16 season. His replacement, Mazzarri, is determined not to make the same mistake.
In his programme notes, captain Troy Deeney said Mazzarri had “made it very clear that he’ll be looking carefully at our performances during these [remaining] games and considering them when it comes to making decisions ahead of next season.” The Italian manager sent his team out in a 5-3-2 formation, aimed at suffocating Liverpool’s fluid attacking movement.
And it worked. Klopp’s side enjoyed plenty of possession but with each attacking move it ran into congestion. In a midfield made up of Leiva, Can and Philippe Coutinho, Liverpool was relying on the latter to unlock the Watford defense. But he ran into a yellow wall, and in the fifth minute came off worse and had to be replaced by Adam Lallana seven minutes later.
Lallana was making his first appearance in a month after falling injured while on international duty with England at the end of March. He immediately gave Liverpool more energy, but still they struggled to break through. Lallana teed up Can 30 yards out but his long-distance drive was palmed away comfortably by Gomes.
Watford was set up to play on the counter attack but as Liverpool eased into the game, Klopp’s side dominated possession and camped into the hosts’ half. The Hornets resisted and resisted.
With four minutes remaining in the half, a corner was punched away by Gomes. The ball looped into the air and fell to Lallana on the edge of the area. He hit it first time, head over the ball, sweetly struck on the laces. It flew back toward the goal, over Gomes, and crashed off the under side of the bar. It would have been a wonderful goal, but what came three minutes later was even more stunning.
A throw-in was worked over to Lucas midway through the opposition half. Watford, content with Liverpool having the ball at that distance, stood off the Brazilian as he played in a diagonal cross to Can, who delivered the acrobatic and sensational. At 23, the German has all the attributes to become one of the Premier League’s best in midfield and with moments like this he will edge closer.
The traveling fans roared with delight and chanted Can’s name. They knew what this would mean for their Champions League hopes.
It was a killer blow to Watford, which had forced Liverpool into the spectacular and had been heading into half time deservedly still in the game. But Klopp rallied his team during the break, asking them to take a hold of its European destiny.
Gomes was forced into an early save from a James Milner free-kick. Then, the Brazilian had to use his six-foot-three-inch frame to palm away a curling Divock Origi effort. Origi was in behind the Watford defense again four minutes later but sent his shot straight at Gomes. Liverpool could smell the kill.
Mazzarri’s side weathered the onslaught and then hunted an equalizer. This old ground, one of the last remaining traditional stadia in Premier League football, rocked as the home fans willed their team forward. In the 67th minute, Etienne Capoue came close to granting their wishes with a long-range effort that required Simon Mignolet to tip over.
Liverpool’s best opportunity to kill the game off fell to Lallana. On the counter-attack, Can played in Lallana but the Englishman’s first touch was poor, and Amrabat recovered to save the hosts. Mazzarri pounded the frame of his dugout in frustration as his team was exposed.
The Italian brought on Isaac Success who gave Watford pace and power but couldn’t deliver the promise of his name. But there was one last scare for the visitors. In stoppage time, a cross into the penalty area bounced around and center-back Prodl smashed a volley onto the crossbar.
But Liverpool held on. At the final whistle, Klopp beamed, he embraced his players and thanked the traveling fans. Liverpool’s European hope is now in its own hands.
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