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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

Liverpool go top as Mohamed Salah goal sinks Brighton

Liverpool uncharacteristically lacklustre after Egyptian scores his second Premier League goal of the season

Brighton defender Shane Duffy, left, up against Liverpool goalscorer Mohamed Salah. AFP 
Brighton defender Shane Duffy, left, up against Liverpool goalscorer Mohamed Salah. AFP 

It would mean more in May than August, but Liverpool are top of the league. They may have extended their 100 per cent start to the current campaign with the least spectacular of their three displays but a team who have dropped too many points at home against their inferiors in the past can savour both the result and the sight of the table. For the first time since November 2016, they can stare down from the divisional summit.

Manchester United’s conquerors Brighton & Hove Albion were beaten by Mohamed Salah. The Egyptian’s record-breaking 32nd Premier League goal of last season came against Albion. So did his second of the new campaign and it sufficed for a Liverpool side who were not at their most explosive or dynamic.

Their performance peaked in the game’s opening quarter, culminating in Salah’s well-taken goal, as Liverpool began in the manner of a team who were given a fillip by the full-time score from Molineux, where Manchester City had dropped points against Wolves, and Bournemouth’s comeback against Everton.

That bright start proved a fine way of combating Brighton’s defensive approach. Albion had the division’s worst away record last season, recognised the need to be tougher to beat on their travels and duly dropped the creator Pascal Gross, who was instrumental in last week’s win over Jose Mourinho’s side, to reinforce the midfield with the summer signing Yves Bissouma.

Yet stopping Liverpool is not as simple as that. By the time Salah broke the deadlock, they had already come close three times, offering different illustrations of how to combat the congestion in the middle. Andrew Robertson outflanked Brighton when he crossed and Roberto Firmino drew a superb save from Mathew Ryan with a header. Trent Alexander-Arnold showed the merit of long-range shooting, clipping the bar with a free kick after Naby Keita had been fouled. Liverpool’s feared front three had also demonstrated their ability to combine when Salah found Sadio Mane, who had sidefooted wide.

Salah had been profligate in Monday’s win over Crystal Palace, although he still contributed to two goals. His radar functioned rather better here as he scored one, his 29th goal in as many games at Anfield. It was steered in with expert precision. Firmino was the provider, sliding the ball into the Egyptian’s path after a move that also involved Mane, but the instigator was James Milner, who regained possession by dispossessing Bissouma. It highlighted both the merits of Klopp’s gegenpressing, with Liverpool swift to score after winning the ball, and Milner’s early-season excellence.

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At one stage, Brighton seemed to be taking in in turns to foul Milner in a bid to nullify him. Meanwhile, Gini Wijnaldum had a fine first half in the holding role, even if his defensive credentials were scarcely tested, as Jurgen Klopp named an unchanged team. Once again, Fabinho, the first of his summer signings, was not even on the bench.

Chris Hughton was more proactive in selection in a damage-limitation exercise. His teams had conceded at least four goals in each of his five previous managerial meetings with Liverpool. This amounted to his best result at Anfield, with neither Brighton’s goal difference nor their morale taking a hammering.

That owed something to Ryan, who made further saves from Wijnaldum, Mane and Joe Gomez. Yet Liverpool were uncharacteristically lacklustre in a second half when they created too little. Mane, after an electric start to the season, misjudged some passes while Firmino’s wait for a first goal of the campaign goes on.

But Brighton are yet to score on the road. While Anthony Knockaert drew a save from Alisson with an early shot, the goalkeeper was tested more by Alexander-Arnold, with a slice the goalkeeper had to tip wide. His third consecutive clean sheet was notable for an impudent piece of skill to deceive Knockaert.

The French winger had spurned the chance to be the first player to score against the Brazilian since his move to Liverpool, skewing an effort wide. The substitute Gross came closer, with Alisson’s acrobatics to keep out his header showing why Liverpool valued him so highly.

They, too, could have scored late on, through Alexander-Arnold’s shot and a Wijnaldum flick that required a goal-line clearance from Shane Duffy, but one goal was enough. They are top.