Jürgen Klopp knows all about the Yellow Wall from his time at Borussia Dortmund but this was a different kind of challenge set by Watford’s blanket five-man defence and Liverpool needed something special, something very, very special, to maintain their hopes of finishing in the top four and qualifying for the Champions League.
That something special was a goal of the season contender from Emre Can who ran into the penalty area, on the brink of half-time, adjusted his 6ft 1in frame, heaving his body up high into the air to meet Lucas Leiva’s chipped pass and execute a superb overhead kick that crashed past the startled goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes and high into the net.
Can’s reaction, the fans reaction, his team-mates and opponents reaction said it all. It was jaw-dropping. Emre certainly can. “Pretty nice,” grinned Klopp in gloriously deliberate understatement.
Can was the ‘Rocket Man’, in fact, with reference to Sir Elton John – Watford’s honorary life-president – and the song was coincidentally (or maybe generously and deliberately?) played at half-time only seconds after the extraordinary strike.
Can’s goal will go right up there with strikes by Andy Carroll, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Olivier Giroud this season and maybe because of its importance – and how out of kilter it was with the rest of this attritional game – it deserves to top the lot. It was, he later said, the best he had ever scored.
Except Can was not the first player that Klopp ran to hug at the final whistle. Instead that was Sebastian Prodl with the Watford defender having almost snatched a draw in the 94thminute as Liverpool failed to clear a cross and it bounced to him, knee-high, at the far post only for the 29-year-old to hammer his shot against the cross-bar.
A draw then and Liverpool would have been sent hurtling back to earth. Instead they opened up a four-point gap ahead of fifth-placed Manchester United and capitalised on the failings of those around them when it was feared they were in danger of blowing it. Now, with three games to go, it is back in their hands.
There were concerns, though. Not least with some of their defending and with Philippe Coutinho having to be substituted early on with a dead leg – “Hopefully not too serious, but really painful,” Klopp said – and then his replacement Adam Lallana back after five weeks out through injury also substituted. That appeared more to do with fatigue and Klopp’s need to shore up his back-line ahead of Watford’s aerial bombardment as he brought on another defender, Ragnar Klavan.
If Carlsberg – Liverpool’s former sponsors – did football results then they could not have promised much better for Klopp’s side than what had unfolded on Sunday with both Manchester clubs drawing to teams threatened with relegation and Arsenal beaten by Tottenham Hotspur. Liverpool could have started this encounter in fifth place – and just three points ahead of Arsenal having played a game more – instead of still being in third.
No one could doubt Liverpool’s fight but Watford are obdurate at home. Can’s goal was the first they had conceded in five hours and 19 minutes although they do surrender creativity for organisation under their manager Walter Mazzarri whose future will be reviewed at the end of the season despite steering them to 40 points.
Chances – incidents – were at a premium before Gomes punched a clearance out to Lallana who, 25 yards from goal, managed to volley left-footed and looping back over the goalkeeper with the ball cannoning back off the underside of the bar. The other moment in a tough first-half, before the goal, was Lucas being rightly cautioned as he sought a penalty and dived when close to Tom Cleverley. It kind of negated another Klopp comment that other teams (ie. the Manchester clubs) had benefitted from “penalties not penalties” on Sunday.
Liverpool continued to make the running with Divock Origi forcing two sharp saves from Gomes and knew that they needed that second goal to kill off Watford who had to eventually summon a response and did so when Etienne Capoue struck a rising shot that was tipped over by the impressive Simon Mignolet.
No corner was given, Capoue was booked for his protests, but it served to stir Watford with Mazzarri later complaining that Troy Deeney and substitute Stefano Okako were wrongly pulled up for offside when in promising shooting positions while Mignolet saved well from Daryl Janmaat.
“Their wonder goal means nothing is going on our side because first real chance they had – and it wasn’t really a chance – they took it,” Mazzarri said. That was true. It was not really a chance. But it was some goal. A goal worthy of winning any game, a “goal of “champions”, Mazzarri added or, Liverpool hope, of helping gain entry into the Champions League.