By Daniel Moxon – @dmoxon_
Liverpool resisted a second-half surge from Cardiff City as they eventually secured a 4-1 win to ascend to the top of the Premier League on a sunny afternoon at Anfield.
Mohamed Salah became the Reds’ fastest-ever player to 50 goals with his brace against Red Star Belgrade in midweek, and didn’t take long to get No. 51 with his opener in what was a routine victory against a generally poor Bluebirds side.
Sadio Mané also found the net in the second half to make sure that Jurgen Klopp’s side did enough to win the game, while substitute Xherdan Shaqiri had time to finish his first goal in a Liverpool shirt before the Senegalese bagged a second to secure the three points.
Neil Warnock’s side came to Anfield with the clear agenda of trying to waste as much time as possible on every restart of play, an obvious attempt to limit all possible damage to their goal difference as possible, something that could be vital for their hopes of avoiding relegation when May comes around.
Their inability to match Liverpool’s play was showcased in the opening 15 minutes, in which they only attempted 13 passes, only succeeded in five of them and Liverpool had a staggering 90% possession.
They did get an unlikely goal through Callum Paterson to cut the deficit with 15 minutes to go, but they were unable to capitalise on this and shipped two more goals before the final whistle was blown.
The most excitement in the few opening minutes was when Bobby Reid swung a leg at a long throw, only to find the face of Gini Wijnaldum in the Liverpool penalty area – the former-Bristol City man inexplicably avoided a caution.
Salah got the breakthrough just before the 10 minute mark – Trent Alexander-Arnold’s cross wasn’t cleared by Cardiff, after which Sadio Mané and Roberto Firmino both had efforts blocked, but the ball fell kindly to the Egyptian who forced home at the near post.
Skipper for the day Virgil van Dijk almost doubled the lead a few minutes later when the goalscorer angled a left-footed cross from the right to the far post – the Dutchman beat the offside trap and Sol Bamba in the air but the trickling ball tapped the post and was cleaned-up by the relieved Neil Etheridge.
Moments later a penalty appeal was turned down after Salah appealed to be hauled down on the edge of the area with his back to goal, but referee Stuart Attwell was unimpressed with the appeals of the Liverpool players.
There was further drama in the dying seconds of the first half when Alberto Moreno crossed from the byline and Adam Lallana’s header was cleared off the line by Sean Morrison, Etheridge being left flat-footed and beaten. This was to be the last action of the first period as Mr. Attwell called time on 45 minutes of complete domination from the Reds, though they only managed to get the one goal.
The Bluebirds came out for the second half with a little more intent and willingness to press Liverpool while on the ball, and they had some early success as they forced some errors from the Reds, with Dejan Lovren particularly suspect when giving away a cheap free-kick to Cardiff in a dangerous area.
Victor Camarasa’s delivery was met by Morrison and the ball was scrambled over the line to send the travelling support into raptures, but Mr. Attwell swiftly curtailed their celebrations as he blew his whistle for offside – a lucky escape for the home side.
The Reds would have a second penalty appeal of the afternoon turned down just before the hour mark when Moreno’s cross hit the arm of Sol Bamba, but the man in the middle was, once again, unmoved.
Liverpool finally got their second when Sadio Mané wriggled free of a number of Cardiff defenders on the edge of the area and rocketed a blistering effort beyond the helpless Etheridge to ensure that the scoreline gave a more accurate representation of their dominance.
Out of nowhere the lead was cut to one once again with 15 minutes to go when Junior Hoilett’s cross was deflected by van Dijk into the path of Callum Paterson, who poked beyond Alisson to give his side an unlikely chance of taking something from the game.
But hopes of a late comeback were dashed in the end as substitute Shaqiri found space in the area to sweep the ball beyond Etheridge and restore the two-goal lead.
It was an even more emphatic scoreline just two minutes later when Salah put Mané through one-on-one with the ‘keeper, and the Senegalese produced a delightful chipped finish to put the game beyond all doubt.
Liverpool now sit atop the Premier League and will remain there until at least Monday night – if Manchester City fail to win away at Spurs then the Reds will have made the top spot their own.