football

Mohamed Salah fires thrilling double as Liverpool see off West Ham


With around a quarter of this match left, West Ham won a corner on the right. Scenting a set-piece equaliser, claret-and-blue shirts piled into the penalty area. Jarrod Bowen picked his spot, ran in and delivered a curling left-footed cross. Fifteen seconds later, Liverpool scored. Game over, handshakes, thanks for having us.

It was Mohamed Salah who delivered the coup de grace, finishing a scintillating counterattack with his second goal of the game and sealing the points in the process. But really, the story here was of a team shedding its inhibitions, learning the lessons from a rotten first half and resolving to be just a little quicker, a little braver. Six points in three days from two visits to London have shaken Liverpool, and the title race, back to life.

And as Liverpool ran rings around a tiring West Ham in the closing minutes, it was possible to glimpse something else too: a team who for the first time in weeks look like they are genuinely enjoying their football. Curtis Jones had one of his best games in a Liverpool shirt: a direct, restless, skilful presence in the centre of midfield. Trent Alexander-Arnold looks to be slowly, tentatively finding his way back to form. And if this uneven season has firmly put momentum to bed as a meaningful concept, perhaps the last few days are a reminder that Liverpool are neither as broken nor as unfixable as has occasionally been claimed.

Of course, the black hole at centre-back remains an issue, as West Ham’s late consolation goal proved. Jordan Henderson and Nat Phillips formed Liverpool’s 12th different pairing of the season, a list that at various times has included Fabinho, Rhys Williams, Joël Matip, a park bench, a pile of cushions, a copy of Moneyball and the ghost of Ronnie Whelan. But apart from the odd dicey moment in the first half, neither was overly troubled.

There were more changes further forward, where Sadio Mané was missing through injury. Liverpool’s usual 4-3-3 had been traded in for a loose diamond, with Gini Wijnaldum sitting on top of the defence, Xherdan Shaqiri just behind the front two of Salah and Divock Origi, and James Milner in a sort of floating midfield role, always offering a passing option. If it was an attempt by Jürgen Klopp to dream up some new angles of attack, then it also relied on the sort of sharp movement and sacrificial running, the speed of thought and speed of pass, that has been so rare in his players of late.

Xherdan Shaqiri was given a rare start.
Xherdan Shaqiri was given a rare start. Photograph: John Powell/Liverpool FC/Getty Images

And so before long Liverpool had massed in their same familiar holding pattern: everybody either drifting towards the ball or standing stock still. At times the defence and midfield seemed to be participating in a private competition to see who could play the most scintillating back-pass.

It was slow, comfortable, predictable. A little bit ostentatious and self-congratulatory. A little bit La Liga.

In fact, pretty much the only times Liverpool did look dangerous were when they dared to put the ball in behind and make West Ham turn. Shaqiri had a shot blocked after a lofted ball over the top from Henderson; Origi slid just wide after a clever pass by Thiago. But for the most part Liverpool were going nowhere, and nor were West Ham.

Perhaps it took the half-time break – leavened, no doubt, with a few choice words from Klopp in the dressing room – to refocus Liverpool on their target. They were a much more potent force in the second half: Alexander-Arnold getting further forward, moving the ball quicker through midfield and generally looking more urgent, less content simply to sit and build. Jones replaced Milner in midfield and almost immediately went on a surge through the centre, laying the ball off to his right.

Salah shimmied and shuffled, waited for a gap to appear and found it emphatically. On the touchline, Milner was still talking to Klopp, perhaps seeking clarification over his substitution. As Salah broke the deadlock, both men collapsed into fits of giggles.

For Liverpool, the real breakthrough was still to come. Bowen’s corner from the right was headed away by Andy Robertson to Alexander-Arnold, who found the run of Shaqiri with a brilliant quick diagonal. The haring Shaqiri looked up and swung a first-time cross into the path of Salah: two passes, about 110 yards in total, and a lovely dinked finish to cap an astonishing breakaway.

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Wijnaldum added a late third after some good work from substitute Roberto Firmino, and briefly Liverpool threatened a rout. But there was still time for Craig Dawson to tap in as a sleeping Liverpool let Aaron Cresswell’s corner bounce in their own six-yard box. For Klopp, a reminder of the flaws still to correct, the lapses still to eliminate. But a week after staring a full-blown crisis in the face, they’d probably have taken this.



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