Shortly after Spurs’ title tilt faltered at Wembley on Saturday, Liverpool offered further proof of their credentials with a stunning win over Arsenal.
While Tottenham surrendered a half time lead and lost 3-1 to Wolves in London, the Reds thumped the Gunners 5-1 at Anfield to extend their lead at the summit of the table to nine points.
They remain unbeaten in the league, and are now 10 clear of Manchester City – who have a game in hand against Southampton tomorrow – heading into Thursday’s crucial showdown at the Etihad.
Only Chelsea (55 in 2005-06) and Manchester City (58 in 2017-18) have accrued more points than Liverpool’s 54 (from just 20 games) at this stage of a season.
But can Liverpool finally claim that ever elusive Premier League title?
Coping with pressure
It was Arsenal who drew first blood at Anfield, with Ainsley Maitland-Niles turning home Alex Iwobi’s excellent cross in just the 11th minute.
However, Jurgen Klopp’s side drew level in the 14th minute after a defensive mix-up in the Arsenal box allowed Roberto Firmino to produce a trademark no-look finish from point blank range.
It was the first time Liverpool had fallen behind at Anfield in 2018, and the experience lasted just three minutes.
Firmino then fired the hosts in front just 90 seconds later, dispossessing Lucas Torreira in midfield before dribbling past Shkodran Mustafi and Sokratis to coolly slot the ball past Bernd Leno with his left foot.
If falling behind at home in a big game was a test of character for the league leaders, this was an emphatic response.
Liverpool then caught the Arsenal defence napping shortly after the half hour mark, with Salah putting the ball on a plate for Sadio Mane after being picked out by a long diagonal from Andy Robertson.
Salah got in on the act himself in first half stoppage time, earning a penalty after a clumsy foul from Sokratis, and duly converting the subsequent penalty past Leno.
🎶 One, two, threefourfive 🎶 pic.twitter.com/BTcHkEmD85
— LFC USA (@LFCUSA) December 29, 2018
The game was effectively over when the half time whistle sounded, and each member of Liverpool’s front three found himself listed on the scoresheet.
Roberto Firmino’s 65th minute penalty sealed an emphatic result, and the Brazilian striker’s first ever hat-trick for the Merseyside club.
With the 2013/14 capitulation fresh in the scarred minds of Liverpool supporters, they will now there will be plenty more tests of character to come before May, starting with Thursday’s trip to the Etihad.
As the old saying goes, defences win championships.
Liverpool’s attack guarantees goals, and their new-found ability to shut out opponents consistently has been the major contributing factor to their unbeaten start.
Maitland-Niles’ opener at Anfield was just the eighth goal the Reds have conceded in the league this season, and just the third in the busy month of December.
Four of those seven goals were conceded against Chelsea, Spurs, Man United, and now Arsenal, with Liverpool claiming 10 points from those four matches.
Poor defending was Liverpool’s Achilles heel in their last title push under Brendan Rodgers, but this is no longer a concern.
Liverpool’s December: P 8 W 8 D 0 L 0 Scored: 23 Conceded: 3
Man United 3-1
Arsenal 5-1#LFC 👌
— James Pearce (@JamesPearceEcho) December 29, 2018
The Reds have made their best defensive start to a Premier League season, and are the only team in the top flight yet to taste defeat.
Many felt that the league leaders were far from their best in the early weeks of the season, but this was perhaps due to a more rounded approach to matches.
They were more solid than swashbuckling, but picked up points nonetheless.
The signing of Alisson has finally remedied Liverpool’s goalkeeping nightmare, with the Brazilian international keeping 12 clean sheets already this season.
Despite a high-profile error against Leicester early on, the 26-year-old has been superb between the posts, and single-handedly kept the Reds in the Champions League against Napoli.
Virgil Van Dijk is a firm contender for player of the year, and has comfortably established himself as the best defender in the league, while Andy Robertson continues to represent one of the great modern bargains at just £8 million.
Joel Matip – and now Dejan Lovren – stepped up after Joe Gomez’s injury, and Trent Alexander-Arnold has been excellent at right back.
Fabinho also provides extra protection at the base of midfield, and after a slow start, the former Monaco midfielder has proven to be a shrewd acquisition.
Liverpool are no longer a soft touch, and are now comfortably beating the ‘lower’ teams who have so often thwarted them in the past.
Their ability to grind out results and see out games at 1-0 is a compulsory quality for any title winning team, and will be key as they enter the business end of the season.
No second season syndrome for Salah
Mo Salah made a somewhat slow start to the season by his sky-high standards.
There were some half-hearted claims that the Egyptian would be a one-season wonder, but these whispers were more in hope than expectation.
Mohamed Salah is the first player to be directly involved in 20 PL goals this season:
20 Mohamed Salah (13⚽️, 7🅰️)
19 Eden Hazard (10⚽️, 9🅰️)
16 Harry Kane & Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (both 13⚽️, 3🅰️) pic.twitter.com/6t5zuAXsqs
— Sky Sports Statto (@SkySportsStatto) December 29, 2018
Salah has been involved in a staggering 40 Premier League goals in 2018, and enters the new year in dangerous form.
The Liverpool attacker has rediscovered last season’s sensational form, and became the first Premier League player this season to be involved in 20 goals after registering both a goal and an assist against the Gunners.
The 26-year-old has scored 13 goals and provided seven assists already this season in just 20 league matches.
Salah has also scored in 11 different league matches this season, more than any other player.
Liverpool’s attacking triumvirate failed to perform at full tilt in the early stages of the season, but the terrifying trio of Salah, Mane, and Firmino have certainly rediscovered their swagger.
The Reds have scored 21 goals in their last six league matches, and Salah – a long with Mane and Firmino – will be key to a sustained title push.
Strength in depth
Liverpool finally have a squad with enough depth to challenge for the title.
Previous attempts have fallen short, and both Rafael Benitez and Brendan Rodgers lacked strength in depth as their respective title tilts wore on.
This year, however, Jurgen Klopp’s substitutions have been making an impact.
Daniel Sturridge came off the bench to rescue a point at Chelsea, forgotten man Divock Origi won the Merseyside derby after being introduced late on, and summer signing Xherdan Shaqiri scored twice after entering the fray against Manchester United.
For the culture 🔝🗑
— VERSUS (@vsrsus) October 12, 2018
Liverpool had an excellent summer transfer window, and have sufficient cover in every area as a result.
The strength of the squad has allowed Klopp to rotate regularly, particularly in midfield, which is key given his high intensity philosophy.
Against Arsenal, Klopp was able to call on the likes of Jordan Henderson, Adam Lallana, and Nathaniel Clyne in the second half.
18 months ago, all three were key players for Liverpool.
Henderson remains an important player (and captain), though the England international is part of Klopp’s clever midfield rotation policy.
Clyne and Lallana – who have admittedly had lengthy injury issues – are little more than bit-part players now, which demonstrates the improvement in the squad.
Joe Gomez, Joel Matip, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain remain sidelined through injury, while Sturridge, Origi, and Naby Keita were unused substitutes.
Liverpool have plenty of options on the bench each week to change games, and this strength in depth will be key in the latter stages of the season.
City are going nowhere
The bad news for Liverpool is that Man City are going nowhere.
There’s a long way to go in this title race.
Pep Guardiola’s side cruised to the title in stunning fashion last season, and will not surrender their crown lightly.
City have hit a slump in form, suffering back to back defeats to Crystal Palace and Leicester, but rest assured that this dip in form is only temporary.
This is an excellent City team – who have huge quality throughout their squad – with a brilliant manager at the helm.
A likely victory against Southampton tomorrow, and a win over Liverpool at the Etihad next week, and the champions will have reduced the gap to just four points.
With just 22 games played.
Pep won’t panic, and his team have both experience and pedigree when it comes to winning the league, and vast resources (both in terms of playing staff and financial muscle).
Kevin De Bruyne has barely played yet this season, and yet the Manchester club were top of the table until the 2-0 defeat to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.
City face Wolves, Huddersfield, and Newcastle after the Reds’ visit to Manchester, three games in which they will be confident of picking up wins.
They will then face consecutive games against Arsenal and Chelsea, and these crucial matches could go a long way towards deciding which part of Northern England the title heads to in May.
Firstly, Pep’s men must focus on Sunday’s trip to Southampton, and reducing Liverpool’s lead to seven.
Then, all eyes turn to Manchester.