By Matt Ramirez – @Matt_J_Ramirez
A goal-of-the-season contender from Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah wrapped-up a 2-0 victory over Chelsea on a poignant day as Anfield paid tribute to the 96 who lost their lives at Hillsborough 30 years ago.
A goalless first half made way for a furious second as Liverpool claimed all three points. Sadio Mané opened the scoring before Salah’s wonder-strike doubled Liverpool’s lead in front of the Kop minutes later.
Jürgen Klopp made two changes to the side that triumphed over FC Porto on Tuesday. Dejan Lovren and James Milner returned to the bench, with Joel Matip and Andrew Robertson regaining their starting spots.
As the teams made their way out of the tunnel, the capacity Anfield crowd belted ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ with a passion worthy of honouring the fallen 96. The electric atmosphere in the crowd clearly made its way down to the players on the pitch, who started on the front foot and could have easily taken the lead within the opening five minutes.
Link up play between Naby Keita and Mané saw the Senegalese wide-man cross the ball into the path of Salah who could only volley it straight at Kepa Arrizabalaga. Despite not hitting the back of the net, the start only further invigorated the home fans who proceeded to raise the volume in the stadium.
The Reds kept the pressure on the visitors who were, more often than not, penned back in their own half. Despite having control of the game and the majority of possession, Liverpool did struggle to breakdown the Chelsea defensive wall to test Kepa.
In fact, the home side had to wait until the 25th minute to threaten again, when a blocked Jordan Henderson volley saw Liverpool threaten their opponents with a string of corners.
With this being said, the flow of the match seemed to perfectly suit the game plan that Maurizzio Sarri had set out for his London based side – soaking up the Liverpool pressure in defence and then looking to counterattack rapidly with his advanced front three.
Fortunately for Liverpool though, Klopp had positives to build on as his side yet again went close to opening the scoring, this time through a counterattack of their own.
A released Salah took on David Luiz before wiggling his way into the box and finding Mané arriving. The number 10 arrived at pace, hitting the ball towards the top corner of Kepa’s net but unfortunately only saw his effort sail inches wide. Despite not opening the scoring, the effort at least reenergised the home crowd who had fallen slightly flat throughout the contest.
The tension continued to build around Anfield as the half time break closed in with the score set at 0-0. The crowd continued to chant through the half time break, and didn’t have long to wait until they were cheering the opener.
A wave of Liverpool pressure at the start of the second half saw Chelsea get penned back into their own penalty area, and it’s there where Mané struck. Salah burst into the area before getting tackled by Emerson but, fortunately, Henderson was around to pick up the pieces.
The captain skipped past the Chelsea left back before clipping the ball to the back post where Mané leaped high and nodded the ball into the empty net.
After 51 minutes, the Reds had the ball in the back of the net and Anfield was bouncing.
The Kop had yet to finish their rendition of ‘Allez Allez Allez’ before Kepa was picking the ball out of his net again. As Chelsea kicked off, Liverpool quickly regained possession and within a few seconds had doubled their lead through a goal of the season contender.
Virgil Van Dijk picked out Salah with a pinpoint cross field pass and the Egyptian did the rest. The number 11 beat Emerson, before cutting in on his preferred left foot and smashing the ball into the top corner from the outside of the area. Kepa dived at the ball but had no chance as the laser-guided shot found its way straight into the corner of the net before he’d hit the ground.
Salah wheeled away in celebration as the capacity crowd took the roof off of Anfield in celebration.
The goals completely changed the game as Chelsea, who had been defensively lined up prior, changed their tactics and looked to hit back. Gonzalo Higuain was quickly called upon before Eden Hazard struck the post, quickly reminding all in attendance that the game was far from over.
Chelsea grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck, penning Liverpool back in a ten minute flurry which also saw Alisson called upon to yet again deny Hazard. The Belgium received the ball at point blank range, but was unable to beat the Brazilian keeper, who got his body in the way of the strike before van Dijk cleared the danger.
As the away side turned up the heat, Klopp turned to Gini Wijnaldum and James Milner as he looked to stop the Chelsea attacks at their source by regaining the control of the midfield – which they did.
The introduction of the seasoned midfielders solidified the defence and calmed the atmosphere in the ground, leading to Liverpool regaining the bulk of possession and the control of the game.
As the game came to a close, Klopp opted to substitute Salah, allowing the star man to soak in a standing ovation from the capacity crowd in attendance. Anfield cheered and sang as the last minutes wound down on the clock and Liverpool claimed all three points.
Liverpool’s next hurdle sees them travel to Portugal where they face FC Porto in the second leg of their UEFA Champions League quarter final match. The Reds currently lead the tie 2-0 and will hope to progress to the semi finals with a victory on Wednesday.