Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane scored seven goals in Liverpool's wins over City in the league and Champions Legaue last term, but look out of puff this time around
Liverpool's Fab Three look a phantom of the force that 'scared' Manchester City
Liverpool had some special "Fab Threes" in the season of their great revival under Jurgen Klopp. There was, famously, the trio of irrepressible strikers, Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino, talents who came together with Salah’s arrival at Anfield, and found they could operate as ideal complements to one another, their panache, pace and poise hurtling the club to a first Uefa Champions League final for 11 years.
They each reached double figures for goals just in European matches. Between them they scored over 90 goals across competitions between August 2017 and May 2018.
The other Fab Three of a stirring season was the trio of wins over the best team in English football. Manchester City, who visit Liverpool on Sunday, lost only seven times in all competitions last term; Liverpool inflicted three of those defeats, all of them in contexts that counted, outcomes that wounded the Premier League champions. Liverpool’s victory in the league in January, 4-3, was City’s first loss of a historically domineering title march. The thumping - 5-1 over two legs - in the quarter-final of the European Cup would be the darkest eclipse of City manager Pep Guardiola’s entire season.
By the end of the last of the fabulous three victories, the Fab Three up front had between them scored seven goals against City, Salah one on each of the wins, Mane and Firmino on the scoresheet in both the league ambush and the Champions League.
Back then, City had seen the three-pronged threat of Liverpool’s attack coming at them like an avalanche. On Sunday, Guardiola will have noted much less of a noisy, ominous rumble. The momentum gathered behind Liverpool’s forwards as they plot how and when to launch their supercharged blitzes of pressure is not what it was in the winter or in the early spring.
The numbers tell the story. When City went to Anfield in the new year, lording it at the top of the table, having dropped just four points from a possible 66, Firmino, Salah and Mane had between them scored seven times in the preceding four league matches. Guardiola muttered to colleagues “They scare me”. When Liverpool took a 3-0 lead in a Champions League collision within 19 thunderous minutes of the first half of the first leg, the Fab Three were also on a roll, having scored nine goals between them in Liverpool’s previous four matches.
And now? A more sedate lead-in. Salah’s last Liverpool goal was scored at the tail-end of the first half of the win against Southampton, more than two and half hours of action ago, a gap which, set against his electric last season - 44 goals; 46 starts - seems a long while for the Egyptian. Mane, Liverpool’s top marksman of the trio in 2018/19 with four goals against City, struck his most recent on September 1, early in the win at Leicester City. Firmino’s last goal came against Tottenham Hotspur three weeks back, on an afternoon when, although Liverpool maintained their then 100 per cent record - after six Premier League games - at Wembley, the Fab Three were not at their most complicit. There was even the odd episode, irritating to Klopp, where a shot at goal was attempted when a pass to a colleague had looked the more fruitful choice in the circumstances.
It is a significant slowdown. For Liverpool under Klopp, momentum is vital. It is visceral, the galvanising dynamic of the way they play. When momentum deserts Liverpool it can be alarming. Witness the Champions League final in Kiev, after Salah withdrew with injury after half an hour, and belief seemed to wheeze from the rest of the team.
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It would be a vast over-reaction to judge their having lost their drive and their pizzazz at just the wrong time in this young campaign. But form has dipped. Liverpool are on a run of three matches - including one in the League Cup, which is no priority - without a victory, and the defeat at Napoli in midweek was characterised by an unusual bluntness in attack. In Naples, the Fab Three became a Phantom Three.
Klopp, who is encouraged by the lively showings lately of his standby attackers, like Daniel Sturridge and Xherdan Shaqiri, is not ready to diagnose the decline of the Salah-Mane-Firmino trident, or cite as an alibi their possible fatigue from a combination of the high-energy style of their club football and a summer taken up by World Cup finals commitments with Egypt, Senegal and Brazil respectively.
Nor is Klopp preparing put his three musketeers into a remedial programme. “Every striker could write a book about the moments when you score without knowing how it works,” said the manager, reflecting on the 1-0 loss at Napoli. “I work with people, and they drop form usually much more often than these boys have so far.”
Sunday would certainly be the moment to regain it.