Erling Haaland has quickly become the darling of the Premier League, with his record-breaking start to the season swiftly elevating him to a status of being probably the most-feared player in the division.
At the same time, Mohamed Salah has largely endured an underwhelming start to the campaign. But after a Champions League treble in midweek, the forward made the difference as Liverpool beat reigning champions Manchester City 1-0 at Anfield on Sunday.
Salah’s winning goal was just the tip of the iceberg. His performance showed he’s truly back, and Liverpool’s fighting spirit proved they are still – despite what the table says – one of England’s two best teams.
The wider context of the game was nothing like what we’ve come to expect of this fixture, which in recent years has become the Premier League’s biggest event and even decided the eventual destination of the title.
Jurgen Klopp conceded on Friday that while this may well be a title-deciding match again in some respects, it wasn’t going to be Liverpool’s trophy hopes on the line – realistically, such a challenge is surely already beyond them even after winning.
With Liverpool going into the game 12th in the table, it was their pride at stake. Much has changed since the Reds had too much for City in the Community Shield a week before the start of the season; the perception of Haaland, first and foremost.
Back then, most would’ve been predicting another straight shoot-out between City and Liverpool for the title, though the relative lack of jeopardy at Anfield on Sunday didn’t take anything away from a riveting, fiery contest.
Klopp highlighted the potential importance of a packed Anfield, and the stadium was certainly rocking. Even minor duel successes for the hosts were cheered like goals early on; it was fierce, with meaty tackles flying in all over the place, while on the touchline the two managers snarled and barked at poor decisions and questionable refereeing calls like rabid rottweilers – Klopp’s late red card wasn’t particularly surprising.
Of course, for City all eyes were on Haaland. It’s fair to say he’s more than proven his point since a pretty dreadful – by his standards – outing against Liverpool in the Community Shield. Though, for someone as ultra-competitive as the Norwegian, there was still probably a part of him desperate to be decisive because of that day.
City certainly seemed eager to give him that opportunity, and that was arguably to their detriment in the first half. The visitors almost seemed a little too intent on finding the big blonde behemoth, as if a victory would only count if Haaland played a crucial part.
One such incident saw an opening carved open for Phil Foden, but instead of a first-time shot after being fed by Haaland, he checked back, ran into danger and then the attack petered out.
Not that Haaland didn’t have his chances. One lob attempt after being released behind Virgil van Dijk troubled Alisson, then he should have buried a header from Kevin De Bruyne’s cross but put it straight at the goalkeeper.
On the other side of things, Salah looked eager to remind people he was the Premier League’s top attacker. The Egyptian took the game to City and was electric in the first half. His movement, strength and dribbling all troubled the visitors’ defence – the problem was opportunities weren’t necessarily flowing.
That changed at the start of the second half. Salah spun Ruben Dias and latched on to a Thiago Alcantara pass into the City half, playing him through on goal. He seemed destined to spark bedlam in the Kop behind the goal he was charging towards, but a remarkable fingertip save from Ederson denied him.
Alisson soon produced a similarly vital stop to thwart Haaland at the other end, having only recently seen a Foden goal disallowed for a foul by the Norway striker in the build-up.
At this point, City were dominating more than ever, but Salah had looked a threat throughout on the break. Another opportunity was certain to arrive, and it was one such moment that brought Liverpool the breakthrough.
Alisson’s long punt went straight to Salah, who used his body brilliantly to spin away from Joao Cancelo before racing towards goal. Ederson could not repeat his earlier heroics – Salah coolly converted.
City piled the pressure on in response. Both teams scrapped, Bernardo Silva and Salah scrapped with each other. Klopp was sent off. Diogo Jota ran himself into the ground and on to a stretcher. The imperious Van Dijk denied Haaland a certain goal.
Liverpool held on amid a gripping and tense finale, seeing out a victory that could transform their season. But beyond that, this fixture was a showcase of such quality.
Salah’s moment of brilliance was befitting as the decisive action, though there were exceptional performances on both sides. Joe Gomez, Van Dijk, James Milner, Alisson, Ederson, Haaland, De Bruyne – the list goes on. All showed their varied qualities as we were once again reminded of why this fixture has become such an anticipated duel in recent years.
Forget the table. Liverpool are one of England’s two best teams, and Salah remains one of the Premier League’s two best forwards.