Liverpool recorded a vital 4-2 victory over bitter rivals Manchester United at Old Trafford on Thursday night to keep their top-four prospects alive and, bizarrely, in their own hands. Because Leicester face Chelsea next up, Liverpool are actually in control of their own destiny despite their struggles in 2021. And in managing a gigantic and much-needed victory in Manchester, Jurgen Klopp‘s call to drop Sadio Mane was fully justified – by Roberto Firmino.
Mane scored the opener in the win over Southampton last time out but found himself relegated to the substitutes’ bench here, Firmino joining Mohamed Salah and Diogo Jota in the front three.
The Reds had a good chance to open the scoring through Firmino himself inside the opening three minutes. The forward was put into a promising position by Trent Alexander-Arnold the Brazilian tried to square it to Diogo Jota rather than shoot himself, and the move fizzled out.
United then went 1-0 up just seven minutes later after Bruno Fernandes’ cross deflected beyond Alisson courtesy of a touch from Nat Phillips.
Phillips looked to have won the visitors a penalty to give them a chance to equalise but referee Anthony Taylor changed his mind on pointing to the spot after consulting the VAR pitchside monitor, much to Eric Bailly’s relief.
But Liverpool hit back to lead 2-1 at half-time with Jota cutely flicking beyond Dean Henderson with a backheel after Phillips reverse ball back through the box after a corner.
Firmino then headed in from Alexander-Arnold’s free-kick into the back post before making it 3-1 inside two minutes of the restart after Henderson spilled a shot from the full-back.
Marcus Rashford reduced the arrears as the hosts sought to put pressure on Liverpool into the closing stages, but they couldn’t muster a leveller.
Klopp’s side had an abundance of chances before and after that Rashford goal to kill the game and eventually made it 4-2 through Salah right at the death in order to secure their first Old Trafford win since 2014, and Klopp’s first at United’s home stadium.
The victory is one which moves them four points off of fourth place with a game in hand, just 10 days from the conclusion of the campaign.
And Klopp’s call to pick Firmino over Mane – who had two goals in his previous three league games before this – fully paid off thanks to his two-goal salvo.
Mane admitted in the week that he is enduring his worst form of the season but his numbers have at least improved of late. Yet he was still only among the reserves at Old Trafford.
Though Firmino might have shot early on instead of trying to find his team-mate, he produced an excellent header to put Liverpool ahead and a lovely finish for his brace too as he found his goalscoring touch at the perfect time.
He worked hard throughout and was full of the confidence that he has often lacked this season.
His header was his first career goal against United and in netting his second, he became only the third player ever after Robbie Fowler and Steven Gerrard (x2) to score a brace for Liverpool at Old Trafford in the Premier League.
Firmino, remarkably, now has more league goals in ‘Big Six’ games than any other player in the English top flight across the past four seasons.
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Yet he wasn’t even Liverpool’s brightest performer on the night. That honour went to Alexander-Arnold, who was absolutely sensational from right-back and managed five key passes alone in the first half.
That was as many as the entire United team combined in the first 45 and the 22-year-old continued to shine after the interval and provide incisive pass after incisive pass.
He almost scored too with Red Devils shot-stopper Henderson, who was kept busy in the second half, required to keep him out as England boss Gareth Southgate watched on from the stands.
Alexander-Arnold might have walked away with at least a hat-trick of assists on another night. He had to settle for one here but was comfortably the best player on the pitch.
He has come in for plenty of criticism this term but individually served up a display that sent a clear message to Southgate. “He’s been absolutely outstanding,” admitted Gary Neville on Sky Sports as he and Jamie Carragher both named the defender their man of the match.
And the Liverpool team overall sent a message of their own: watch out Leicester and Chelsea.
The top-four picture now
Liverpool’s win moves them into fifth on 60 points having played 35 matches, with games against West Brom, Burnley and Crystal Palace to come.
Fourth-placed Chelsea and Leicester, in third, go head-to-head in the FA Cup final at the weekend and then take each other on in the league next week.
That means if Liverpool win all of their points to finish on 69, their worst chance of qualifying for the Champions League is if Chelsea win against Leicester and Aston Villa.
That would put them on 70 points while Leicester, if they lost to Chelsea and then beat Tottenham on the final day, would end on 69 points along with Liverpool, with goal difference deciding who takes fourth.
Liverpool are on +20 with Leicester on +21 at present but if they win three more matches, stand a good chance of overtaking the Midlands club and therefore finishing above them.
If Leicester win both of their games, meanwhile, and Liverpool win three from three then Chelsea will end in fifth on 67 points even if they beat Villa.