x

Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

Minus craft and creativity of Philippe Coutinho, Liverpool look to Sadio Mane for inspiration in win over Crystal Palace

A 15th in 29 Liverpool league games for the Senegalese ranked as suitably scrappy strike to settle a rather scruffy affair.

Liverpool's Sadio Mane, left, celebrates scoring his side's first winner against Crystal Palace at Anfield, Liverpool. Martin Rickett / PA
Liverpool's Sadio Mane, left, celebrates scoring his side's first winner against Crystal Palace at Anfield, Liverpool. Martin Rickett / PA

The taunt was as premature as it was predictable. “Where’s your Coutinho?” chorused the Crystal Palace fans. Philippe Coutinho was nowhere to be seen, injured – officially, anyway – though not Barcelona bound, Liverpool insist.

If this offered indications of the extra dimension Coutinho, with his craft, creativity and capacity to unleash unstoppable shots, can offer a Liverpool side who were largely uninspired, Palace could not crow. Liverpool won without him.

That is the Sadio Mane effect. Coutinho is silk and style, Mane pace and predatory prowess. Barcelona have valued Coutinho at £118 million (Dh556m) but it is a moot point if the Brazilian represents Liverpool’s most indispensable player. Mane has a claim to that title, courtesy of his speed and sheer weight of goals.

A 15th in 29 Liverpool league games ranked as suitably scrappy strike to settle a rather scruffy affair. “I loved the goal,” manager Jurgen Klopp said. “It was a counter-pressing situation.”

It was a product of his ethos and Mane pounced decisively to deliver a decider. Dominic Solanke harried Luka Milivojevic and the ball cannoned off the Palace midfielder to Mane, who slotted his shot under Wayne Hennessey.

It reflected upon Liverpool’s greater sense of urgency. The involvement of the substitute Solanke was telling, too. Klopp made an impact with his changes, but he needed to.

“The football in the first half could have been better, 100 per cent,” he said. It provided an unwanted reminder that Liverpool require the chemistry they often lack without their premier players. They are disjointed when depleted.

They were without the injured Adam Lallana and Coutinho, minus the intended arrivals Virgil van Dijk and Naby Keita and shorn of the five players Klopp demoted. This was the chance to rotate, sandwiched by the two legs of the Uefa Champions League qualifier against Hoffenheim and eight days before Arsenal’s visit. Despite the result, it did not bode well for other occasions when Klopp has to call upon his squad players.

READ MORE:

In the end, the German had to summon Mohamed Salah, who formed a front four with Solanke, Mane and Roberto Firmino. It felt another indictment of Daniel Sturridge who, on his comeback from injury, was the first man substituted and still awaits a first Anfield goal of 2017. His presence has a knock-on effect. Wayne Hennessey parried a forceful shot from Firmino and the Brazilian then came close with a curler, but he is a lesser player when he operates on the left of a front three. He was busier when restored to a central role.

Liverpool’s greatest threat before then came from a debutant defender. Left-back Andy Robertson’s was a promising bow which could have yielded two assists. “His crosses are a real threat,” Klopp said.

A swirling centre was missed by Hennessey, flailing at thin air, and met by Joel Matip, who headed well wide of an unguarded net. Then Mane failed to convert another menacing cross.

Hennessey went on to make a series of stops, late efforts denying Solanke a first Liverpool goal and Salah a first on Merseyside. Each is a glimpse of Liverpool’s future. They also had a vision of their past. Christian Benteke, the striker Klopp discarded, had condemned Liverpool to defeat on his first return to Anfield. He had an opportunity to ensure history repeated itself, but skied a shot when Ruben Loftus-Cheek picked him out.

“The chances we get, we have to punish them,” said manager Frank de Boer. “Christian had the biggest one.”

He has lost both games in charge. “To lose 1-0 is very disappointing because we deserve more,” he added. “It is about the points and we are empty-handed.”

Klopp, that golden chance notwithstanding, maintained Liverpool’s defending was “outstandingly good". If that is an exaggeration, at least there was no repeat of the mayhem in the 3-3 draw at Watford.

In other elements, Liverpool remain the same. As for Coutinho, Klopp maintained Liverpool’s defiance towards Barcelona. “Nothing has changed,” he asserted.