Prior to the start of this match between Liverpool and Watford, the objectives for the hosts would have been fairly clear: avoid injuries, and get a win. That Jürgen Klopp’s side accomplished those goals comfortably, while fielding a makeshift back four against a physical and opportunistic strikeforce that had bullied its way to a 3-0 victory over Liverpool in December, is just icing on the cake.
There were eight changes to the side that romped past Villarreal in midweek; not a new phenomenon for Klopp’s Liverpool and hardly surprising given the meagre incentives offered by the league table relative to the potential rewards of a Europa League victory. Simon Mignolet, who might have expected to be rested, stayed in action after Danny Ward was ruled out with injury. Philippe Coutinho and Alberto Moreno were also asked to provide some veteran savvy from the opening whistle.
Liverpool had a chance here to erase two unhappy precedents: first, their recent lackluster performance and loss against Swansea City last weekend, and second, their three-goal capitulation against Watford at Vicarage Road. There was also an opportunity to stake a claim for a Europa League spot in the coming season, but a few well-documented instances of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory meant that there was little else to play for in the league.
Watford, for their part, could safely look forward to another season in the top flight. Combine that with a warm, sunny afternoon and a slight spectator hangover from the victory against Villarreal, and this was never going to be a match with a particularly lengthy highlight reel. Still, both sides gave it a good go from the opening whistle, contributing to a bright and early series of opening exchanges with chances for both hosts and visitors.
Odion Ighalo was, as expected, the primary danger man for Watford. The Nigerian striker elicited some frantic attention from Skrtel, Moreno and Lucas Leiva in the first half, while also finding time to pick up a stray Joe Allen pass and test Mignolet with a chip from just outside the center circle.
Liverpool’s kids looked determined to show that the performance at Swansea was an aberration. Sheyi Ojo, operating on the right, proved a handful for Watford’s defenders and won several early corners for the home side. Unfortunately, this being Liverpool, those corners failed to trouble Heurelho Gomes and arguably caused Mignolet more distress, as they frequently led to dangerous Watford counterattacks. Fortunately for Liverpool, Skrtel’s high wire balancing act saw one of its better days, and the defender put in a journeyman’s performance, even finding a a couple of occasions to make crucial, Lovrenesque interventions (a reminder that Lovrenesque is no longer a pejorative).
The breakthrough came just shortly after the half-hour mark. A lofted free kick from deep found Benteke, and the much-maligned striker did exactly what he was supposed to in this situation: knock the ball down perfectly for an onrushing Joe Allen to slide home and slot past Gomes. An unfussy and straightforward move and finish, and one that gave Liverpool a deserved lead. Allen has been conspicuously competent when called upon in the latter half of this season, and his performance today will be another internet forum reference point if his contract is not renewed.
The second half started much as the first half had finished, with Liverpool just about in control but unable to punish Watford further. Benteke and Coutinho combined well on successive occasions, but the final product was lacking and Liverpool continued to cling to a slim advantage.
That advantage was eventually put to a sterner test in the second half. A clever touch from Deeney flummoxed the B-team defense and found Ighalo in prime position, and only a fingertip save from Mignolet kept Watford from leveling. This, and the introduction of Guedioura and Berghuis, marked the beginning of a good spell of possession for Watford, but while the Liverpool back line creaked ominously, it did not break.
Roberto Firmino was summoned from the bench to replace Coutinho midway through the second half, and immediately set about restoring balance by creating problems for Watford with his harrying. The win was finally secured when Ojo’s attentions forced Anya into a mistake. The ball fell kindly for Firmino, and the Brazilian drove past several Watford defenders before squeezing a low shot under a flailing Gomes.
Despite previous nightmares when leading by two goals, there was never a strong sense that this lead would be relinquished, even with the introduction of more youth in the form of Cameron Brannagan and Connor Randall. Brannagan might even have found a way to extend the lead late, but his first time cross was just a fraction too high for Benteke to head with purpose.
Two goals to the good and a clean sheet at the final whistle. This was not a performance to set hearts a-flutter, but it allowed some key players to rest, gave youth a chance to impress again, and last but not least, secured all three points. This was a match that will have more relevance when hard decisions about personnel are made during the summer. Before then, Liverpool have bigger fish to fry.