A game for all the cliches and we’re going to use every single one of them, so fair warning.
Liverpool have absolutely asked Manchester City the question ahead of Sunday’s Manchester derby by grinding out a hard-fought 1-0 victory over West Ham. Were Liverpool anywhere near their best? Absolutely not, but doesn’t that just make this precisely the sort of victory on which title wins are built?
And what, then, of their unfortunate vanquished foes? West Ham can certainly take pride in the fact they made life difficult for Liverpool. The title-chasing Reds certainly knew they’d been in a game, and there’s not a shadow of a doubt that the Hammers will play far worse than that and win having gone toe-to-toe with an elite side and been only some less than clinical finishing away from taking a point at least back to London.
Mohamed Salah endured the most frustrating sort of evening for an attacker, one in which he both struggled to exert influence on the general play yet also found himself with plenty of chances none of which he took. His dudgeon was high when he was substituted late on and was muttering to himself as he made his way back to the bench. For Jurgen Klopp, the arrival of the fantastic Luis Diaz means he now has five players who will all expect a place in his front three and that means there will always be some disappointment. For a manager, though, that’s a nice problem to have.
David Moyes has one of those too: does he prioritise European qualification via the league, or the high-wire but potentially more rewarding route of the Europa League which would bring with it both silverware and a Champions League spot that seems unlikely to come via a league finish. No shame in that, of course, with West Ham punching well above their weight but the sight of West Ham, already without Declan Rice due to illness, losing Jarrod Bowen to injury and bringing on a 19-year-old debutant was a stark contrast to Diogo Jota replacing a narked but healthy Salah for Liverpool.
West Ham’s season shouldn’t be defined by Liverpool away, but they will be frustrated. There should definitely be some rueing going on. This was a chance against a Liverpool side who have been freewheeling their way to victory in recent weeks but now suddenly find themselves back in an actual title race – a Quadruple race even! – with the added pressure that brings. This was not the most convincing clean sheet Liverpool will ever keep and West Ham’s slick counter-attacking found huge gaps far too often for Liverpool to ever be comfortable. Manuel Lanzini should have scored on the hour, Michail Antonio might have done 20 minutes later.
Liverpool were creating and missing chances of their own along the way, but allowing 13 attempts on their own goal didn’t scream “Champions”. And while Liverpool had 22 attempts of their own, many had an air of desperation about them. Several were from long-range, many of those from the increasingly frustrated Salah.
But we are at a point in the season now where results matter far more than performances. Any assistance from Manchester United tomorrow – and their record at the Etihad recently is preposterously good – against what is bound to be a City side every bit as nervy as Liverpool were tonight and it really is game on in the title race. That in itself is reason enough for Liverpool to celebrate. There is an advantage in playing first on these title run-in weekends, but only if you win. Liverpool, against very good opposition who played very well, did that.
The solitary goal was tidily finished by a marginally onside Sadio Mane thanks to another assist for Trent Alexander-Arnold. It’s the sort of goal that you wouldn’t have looked twice at five years ago but that now cannot be fully celebrated until the nerds have drawn their lines despite looking onside in real time and on replays. You just sense that it’s tight and until those lines are there you don’t really know which way it’s going to go. It’s not all progress.
Alexander-Arnold was involved in another interesting (non) VAR incident at the other end, clearing the ball off the line to deny Pablo Fornals after a swift West Ham counter. Once the ball was safely behind for a corner, Alexander-Arnold set about berating the assistant for not giving offside, which prompted two thoughts. One, he was probably a bit lucky not to get booked and a semi-facetious two, if you’re that confident it’s offside then just let it in. Replays suggested he was probably just about right and while it would be a move that requires the most gigantic testicles imaginable it’s not entirely without logic. Had West Ham scored from the corner, then the goal would have stood. If Fornals is offside, then Liverpool are safe.
It might not be something to try out in the title race, but it’s worth thinking about for a mid-table side that concedes a lot of goals from set-pieces. Leicester, we’re looking at you.
We’ve veered wildly and erratically off the main point there, so let’s get back to cliches.
Liverpool have done their part. City, it’s over to you.