Cardiff 0-2 Liverpool - The Reds hit their highest point total in a Premier League season and return to the top! - Match Preview
Liverpool made it a club record-breaking season with a 0-2 victory against Cardiff, the result sees them move to 88 points bettering their highest ever total in the Premier League by 2 points and there are still 3 games left to play. It was not a straightforward victory though as Cardiff pulled a few tricks to try and disrupt Liverpool's style of play by allowing the grass to grow a little longer, they left the sprinklers off ahead of the game ensuring a dry surface and then wasted as long as they could whenever the ball would go out of play giving themselves every chance to hold on for a precious point in their fight for survival. It meant Liverpool had to be patient for quite a while but they eventually broke through and scored the goals to send them back to the top of the league once more.
Jurgen Klopp made three changes to the side that clinched a place in the Champions League semi-finals midweek with Roberto Firmino, Jordan Henderson and Naby Keita coming back into the side as expected, the one surprise, however, was the Liverpool managers decision to leave out Brazilian midfielder Fabinho. Instead, Gini Wijnaldum maintained his place in midfield as Klopp altered his system slightly from his regular 4-3-3 formation and this time went with a 4-4-2 diamond formation, Wijnaldum played at the base with Henderson on the right and Keita on the left. Roberto Firmino played further back than usual at the point of the midfield while Mo Salah and Sadio Mane played in the attack. Neil Warnock was boosted by Aron Gunnarsson passing his late fitness test meaning the Cardiff boss could send out the same starting eleven that won against Brighton last time out.
The dry surface which Cardiff had hoped would be more of a detriment to Liverpool seemed to have the desired effect as there were a few moments in the game where the ball did not seem to travel as the players hoped, leading to quite a frustrating first half from a Liverpool point of view. It even almost lead to a surprise lead for the hosts when Trent Alexander Arnold miss placed a pass infield which was intercepted allowing Mendez-Laing to go forward taking on Liverpool's right-back and sending a cross over to Holiet but his shot was blocked by Robertson and Liverpool avoided a catastrophic start.
Despite the conditions, Liverpool did manage to create a bunch of chances through the first half. Around the 25th minute, Liverpool's forward trio combined with some wonderful one-touch football leading to Firmino receiving the ball inside the Cardiff penalty area one on one with the Etheridge in goal for Cardiff. Despite it seeming like it would be more difficult for the Liverpool striker to miss than score, that is exactly what he did as he leant back too far and ballooned it yards over the bar from close range. Chances then came for Sadio Mane who also struck off-target and Mo Salah who was denied by Etheridge reacting quickly to the Egyptian bursting into the box with a skilfull turn. The final big chance of the half came to Cardiff following a corner, it was fired back into the box after initially being cleared but the miss hit shot fell for Niasse who volleyed it from close range forcing an excellent save from Alisson who tipped it over the bar to keep the scores level.
Cardiff started the half brightly and had an early penalty shout when they appealed Robertson had a hold of Morrison's shirt when the ball was played into him inside the box, but the referee waved off the appeals. The game soon settled after a few minutes and Liverpool continued plugging away looking for another chance to score. Around the hour mark, they found their breakthrough via a corner. It was cross in low by Alexander Arnold and at first glance seemed like he had scuffed the cross, but it was intentional and arrived in the box perfectly for Gini Wijnaldum to rifle into the back of the net with a perfectly hit shot. Etheridge almost got a hand to it but the ball flew past him at such pace it may have not even been enough to stop it if he had reached it. It was a big decision to leave him in the side ahead of Fabinho and the Dutchman paid back Jurgen Klopp with what could potentially be a crucial goal in the title race.
With the deadlock broken and Cardiff now needing a goal the game opened up with chances falling to either team over the next few minutes, the clearest came for Cardiff, once again from a corner kick. It was a brilliant corner delivered perfectly towards the back post where Morrison was unmarked, it looked certain that he would head it into the goal but somehow he ducked under it and the ball bounced off the back of his neck to bounce away from goal. Jurgen Klopp responded by bringing on Fabinho to strengthen Liverpool's defence but the midfielders time on the pitch was brief, within minutes he contested an ariel challenge with Kenneth Zohore and the two players clashed heads sending Fabinho to the ground. Despite protests from the player insisting he was fine the Liverpool physio team made the decision that he could not continue and he was replaced by James Milner just 3 minutes after coming onto the pitch himself.
With around 10 minutes left to play, Roberto Firmino charged down an attempted clearance which saw the ball ricochet into the path of Mo Salah who carried the ball into the Cardiff penalty area. The awkward spin on the ball made it more difficult for Salah to bring under control forcing him to take it wide, by which time Morrison had got back and proceeded to tangle with the Liverpool striker. Salah attempted to wriggle free but with the defender's arms wrapped around him, he tumbled to the floor causing the referee to blow the whistle signalling a penalty. People have suggested it was not a deserved penalty but the replays show Morrison holding Salah from getting away from him and I think it was the correct call. Substitute James Milner stepped up to smash the ball into the back of the net from the spot, confidently smashing it into the bottom right corner after the keeper had gone in the opposite direction. The 33-year-old then proceeded to celebrate imitating an old man with a walking stick, a message to anybody who thinks that he may now be too old to compete at this level any more.
The second goal took the pressure off and Liverpool saw out the final moments of the game in comfort knowing they were heading back ahead of Manchester City to the top of the Premier League. City does have a game in hand, which they will play on Wednesday evening against their local rivals Manchester United. The pressure will well and truly on City and it will be an uncomfortable feeling for Liverpool fans as they find themselves going against everything they have been brought up to believe and actually rooting for a Manchester United victory. Liverpool though, cannot control what happens there and must focus on winning the remaining 3 games and hope it is enough. Up next they take on already relegated Huddersfield in the Friday night football on April 26th.