We are at the beginning of two exciting yet nervy weeks for Liverpool. After this game comes a two-legged Champions League semi-final tie against Roma with a home game against Stoke City sandwiched in between, where a win will go a long way towards us qualifying for a seat at Europe’s top table next season. Of course, lost in all the excitement surrounding out continental exploits there has been a vital trip to Stamford Bridge almost forgotten about. Liverpool simply must keep winning to guarantee Champions League football next season and maintain positive morale around the squad going into the game against Roma on Tuesday night. What more perfect a place to visit then than the home of the Premier League’s bottom side, West Bromwich Albion.
Since Darren Moore took the reins at The Hawthornes on Easter Monday The Baggies have been unbeaten, drawing their following fixture with Swansea before surprisingly beating Manchester United at Old Trafford last week. Naming a familiar side to the one that pulled off that unlikely victory last week, Ahmed Hegazi was joined at centre half by Craig Dawson. Chris Brunt wasn’t inflicted with the left back position in this game, instead joining Jake Livermore in the centre of midfield. Two men as opposed to the usual one would start up front, with Jay Rodriguez and Salomon Rondon being the preferred duo.
Ahead of our important fixture in midweek Jurgen Klopp was expected to ring the changes. He did just that, bringing Ragnar Klavan, Alberto Moreno and the fit again Joe Gomez into the back four in place of Trent Alexander-Arnold, Andrew Robertson and Dejan Lovren. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was dropped to the bench in place of Georginio Wijnaldum, while Danny Ings also come into the starting line-up replacing Roberto Firmino. Despite the worries of many for Mo Salah to stay fit with such vital games on the horizon, he would start this game with the Golden Boot in his sights. All of those dropped would make the subs bench however, alongside Simon Mignolet and Dominic Solanke.
Liverpool took control of the game from the off and it was clear who the better side were. Even though we had a much changed side out, especially in the back four, it hadn’t upset our balance or rhythm at all. On just four minutes we would have our rewards. Sadio Mane showed some excellent skill to waltz past Kieran Gibbs and race into the penalty area. He chipped a ball into the six-yard box for Wijnaldum to bring down. Danny Ings would run onto it though and fire low past Ben Foster to put Liverpool ahead. It was some awful defending from the home side, but this goal was about nobody but Ings. This was his first since October 2015 and his first since coming back from a barrage of injuries which have limited his appearances in that time. The reactions of Ings and his team-mates, during and after the game, told you all you need to know about what it meant to them.
Liverpool took full control after that too and the Baggies were completely unable to get out of their half. It seemed as if our main plan was to give the ball to Mo Salah, but the opportunity to pull clear of Harry Kane in the race for the Golden Boot was clearly playing on his mind and he was obvious desperate to score. His chance on twelve minutes, which would usually work the ‘keeper but was flicked away by Dawson, was evident enough of that, as was his insistence on trying to take on the whole West Brom defence throughout the game.
West Brom capitalised on this though and began to create some chances. First, Chris Brunt shot wide from thirty yards out. Then, on thirty eight minutes, Brunt was on hand again to volley a Matt Phillips cross back across goal, but Jay Rodriguez couldn’t grow in time to tap into an empty net. West Brom seemed to be targeting the crosses behind Joe Gomez and, for the most part, he was dealing well with the threat. They were now starting to meet their man though and Gomez was having minor issues.
There would be one big chance at the end of the half though and it would come for Ings again. Salah showed impudent skill down the Liverpool right before selflessly (for once in this game) setting up Danny Ings. The striker would take one sublime touch to set himself up but was unable to find the net beyond Ben Foster from twelve yards out. It was a huge chance which Ings should have buried, but take nothing away from Foster – he got the basics of goalkeeping in that situation spot on. Shortly after that chance the referee blew his whistle for half time. Liverpool had been marginally the better side but had clearly not escaped second gear yet. While that was the case West Brom always had a chance and you could tell they were aware of that.
The second half began with two big flashpoints as far as Liverpool were concerned. First, Danny Ings ran into the area onto a through ball. As he looked clean through, Craig Dawson clearly stepped across to obstruct Ings and barged him to the ground. Shouts went up for a penalty but referee Stuart Attwell was steadfast in his refusal. Mere moments later Ings was the centre of controversy again. After tussling with Ahmed Hegazi for a high ball, both fell to the ground and Hegazi was given the free kick. Ings was incensed and it was clear why on the replays. As the two hit the deck, Hegazi had clearly punched Ings in the stomach. It was one of many ignored indiscretions from the Egyptian defender that would go unpunished by the referee. By the end of this game he would be lucky to still be on the pitch.
The game once again became tepid as Liverpool were not in a rush to over-exert themselves and West Brom not having the quality to do much more than chop us down at any given opportunity. That was until seventy-eight minutes when, once again, class emerged.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, on as a substitute for James Milner, broke through the middle of the park which the home side had uncharacteristically left unmanned. With the freedom of the Hawthornes the former Arsenal man closed in on the home defence and drew Dawson and Hegazi towards him. He then proceeded to slip a wonderfully weighted ball to his left where Mo Salah was waiting. He took one touch to steady himself before chipping Foster beautifully to seemingly win the game. He stood in front of the delirious Liverpool fans, arms outstretched, looking like the most relieved man in the West Midlands. Game over, surely.
West Brom began to come forward again after the goal, knowing they needed to win to keep their hopes of survival alive for another week at least. Crosses started to fly into the box at an alarming rate and corners were bought with too much ease. On eighty-two minutes, Chris Brunt swung one into the six-yard box. Rondon’s shot was excellently saved low by Karius but Livermore was on hand to poke home. West Brom now smelled blood and Liverpool heads began to drop.
As the clock ticked away it was now a case of whether Liverpool could hang on or not. West Brom sent the ball wide whenever they could, looking to swing balls into the area. Dejan Lovren was brought on to add numbers to the backline, but his introduction just brought panic where there was once composure. Virgil Van Dijk, it has to be said, had had a terrific game though. He headed and kicked away anything that came near him, and he played the game in his usual assured and assertive manner. To say this man has been one of the signings of the season, even for £75 million, is an understatement.
On eighty-eight minutes Joe Gomez gave away a cheap foul on Salomon Rondon and it was obvious what was about to happen. Chris Brunt ran over to take the free kick and curled it into the near post. Loris Karius started to come for it, then stopped, before re-assuming his run. It was too late though, Rondon had seen Karius’ lack of certainty and beat him to it. He held off Lovren to head into an empty net at the near post, levelling the scores in the process. West Brom had completed the comeback and delivered to Liverpool exactly what we had deserved for not taking the game seriously enough.
When the final whistle went not long after a huge roar of approval went up from Baggies fans. Their team had done them proud in fairness even if they stretched the rules at times, refusing to accept their fate. Liverpool had shown complacency and it was clearly two points dropped. With Chelsea now eight points behind not much changes in terms of our qualification for the Champions League next season. We still need four points from out remaining three games – Stoke (H), Chelsea (A), Brighton (H) – to secure our place in the top four.
After the match Jurgen Klopp made some controversial comments regarding the opposition’s style of play and the state of the pitch. One the face of it, that was the wrong thing to do. His side deserved only a point for not matching West Brom’s desire to win the game or for showing a lack of composure in vital moments. It you scratch beneath the surface though it was Klopp pulling a Mourinho – saying something controversial to divert attention away from how poorly his side played. We play a Champions League semi-final on Tuesday night. Our players don’t need to be told how badly they played against a side bottom of the league on Saturday. They need anger and frustration, they need a record to set straight.
This wasn’t the perfect result, but all is not lost, there is a bigger picture to take into consideration here. Onward to Tuesday.