Match Report: Liverpool 2-0 Watford
By Kevin Affleck
The positive Nigel Pearson effect witnessed around the training ground and in various media interviews this week was writ large over this vastly improved showing this afternoon at Anfield, usually a graveyard of a venue for the Hornets in the last three seasons.
Organised, disciplined and willing to go toe-to-toe with the opposition, this display had the no-nonsense and bold Pearson stamped all over it in what was the best performance in this red half of Merseyside in a long time.
Yes, it ended in a defeat many had predicted against the league leaders and European champions, but not in the manner that has been witnessed too often here. Mo Salah's goal late in the first half was all that separated the sides for a long while until the Egyptian flicked in a very late second that gave the scoreline a horribly lop-sided reflection.
There was so much to hang your hat on here from a Watford perspective, so much to give hope and belief in the games to come, providing the team can start finding the back of the net. Driven on by the inspired Will Hughes, there were several chances of the golden variety – probably as many created here in five visits – and many Reds, let alone the neutrals, will wonder how the extremely game visitors didn't score and, possibly, even leave here with a point.
If this is the improvement and level of performance Pearson and Craig Shakespeare have managed to bring about in a week, then it bodes well for what is a hugely crucial period over Christmas. This was not the performance of a team at the foot of the table.
There was plenty to admire about the Hornets' first-half display in particular. They kept the Reds at arms' length to such an extent that it took them until the 23rd minute to have a shot, which is the longest they have had to wait for one in a Premier League match since 2016. That was largely a result of at least two interceptions, one headed and one on the slide, from Christian Kabasele.
It wasn't backs-to-the-wall, though, like it usually is here. The visitors had a right good go and were very neat and cohesive in possession. It wasn't a stretch to say they created the two best chances, and possibly three, of the first half.
Troy Deeney was a whisker away from connecting with a cross from Ismaïla Sarr after five minutes; Abdoulaye Doucouré fluffed his lines completely when Étienne Capoue cut one back after Sarr had played him in down the right with a slide-rule pass and then Sarr did something similar to Doucouré when the ball came across from the other side from Gerard Deulofeu.
There was also a shot on the run from the excellent Hughes and another teasing ball across the face from Doucouré that needed to be intercepted as Deulofeu and Deeney were lying in wait. Pearson would have been delighted with what he saw for long, long periods but then he also saw a moment that encapsulated the season so far. Less than a minute after Sarr had a golden chance to lash one in at the Kop End, Liverpool broke up the other end and Salah tucked one away. It was a harsh, harsh blow, but just typical of the way things go at this exalted level.
It was exactly the same at the start of the second period. Sarr fired one at the 'keeper from an angle when he could, possibly, have squared it to Deeney and then it felt like Liverpool went up the other end and scored through Sadio Mané. Fortunately, the goal was ruled out for a hairline offside call in a VAR decision that, for once, went the Golden Boys' way.
They should really have made the most of the reprieve when Deulofeu went through the centre of the Liverpool defence from a Deeney pass on 54 minutes. He shifted the ball onto his favoured right foot, got it out of his feet and took aim but Alisson Becker hared off his line to smother it. It was a terrific save, but Deulofeu will know presentable chances like that don't come along too often at Anfield.
Still, the Hornets kept coming, still they weren't afraid to take the game to the hosts. Deulofeu rattled the angle of post and bar with one from a corner and there was a Virgil Van Dijk pass that almost went past Becker. Liverpool were really on the back foot at times. It wasn't all plain sailing at the other end, though. It wasn't going to be with the attacking riches Liverpool have.
The ubiquitous Hughes made a key block on Roberto Firmino; Foster made a save from the same player and Adrian Mariappa did excellently to head over a dangerous cross from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. You hoped, for confidence levels, Liverpool wouldn't get a second, that if the Hornets were to lose here it would only be by one goal, but Salah put paid to that with a second in the 90th minute. It was cruel, but then this is a ruthless league. Pearson will know that and will be making his side more streetwise and clinical in the coming weeks.
HORNETS: Foster; Mariappa, Kabasele, Cathcart, Femenía; Sarr, Capoue, Doucouré (Quina 87), Hughes; Deulofeu, Deeney (Gray 75).
Sub not used: Gomes (GK), Dawson, Chalobah, Success, Foulquier.