An away game in Liverpool is always a good opportunity to catch up with one of my oldest and dearest friends and I have to say that I travelled to Liverpool acutely aware that the time spent with her and the planned visit to the Tate on Sunday were likely to be considerably more enjoyable than the 90 minutes at Anfield.
Saturday lunchtime we had a lovely walk through the woods from her town to the next railway station down the line. The weather was lovely, a bright blue sky with the forecast snow falling as the wispiest of flakes. As we waited for our trains she mentioned that she often visits a pub nearby which happens to be Jurgen Klopp’s local. When I arrived in the City Centre, it was decked out in green, white and gold for St Patrick’s Day and everyone I passed seemed to be wearing a green shirt (as was I). Given that the Six Nations clash between Ireland and England was taking place that afternoon, I felt sorry for any English rugby fans who may have been in town as they were horribly outnumbered.
When I had texted one of my party earlier in the day to reassure him that I still had his ticket and find out what time he would be in the pub, I was a little surprised when he indicated that it would be soon after midday. When I arrived, a couple of hours after that, it was acknowledged that this was similar to arriving in the West Herts at 9:30 in the morning. Even Don doesn’t get there that early.
We had a convivial and very tasty lunch (the pies are so good) and were soon joined by the Happy Valley Horns and the Liverpool contingent. As we left the pub (with Ireland well on the way to a result that would give them the Grand Slam) some proper snow was falling. As the buses for the stadium started lining up I was impressed to see them displaying a banner “Remembering the 96”.
When we arrived at the ground, the short walk from the bus to the away entrance was bitter as an icy wind accompanied the snow. The security search was perfunctory and the lovely woman performing it said that I would soon be inside and could warm myself up jumping up and down as my team came out for the game. I smiled and said that we’d make the most of that as it wasn’t likely that we would have any goals to celebrate.
Team news was just the one change in personnel from the Arsenal game, as Britos came in to replace Janmaat, and a change of formation to 5-4-1. So the starting line-up was Karnezis; Femenía, Mariappa, Prödl, Britos, Holebas; Pereyra, Doucouré, Capoue, Richarlison; Deeney.
Prior to kick-off there was a minute’s applause for John Molineux, a former Liverpool player who recently passed away.
The game started disastrously for the Hornets as Salah broke into the box in the third minute and left Britos on the floor before beating Karnezis to open the scoring. At least I’m told that was what happened, as I was too short to see the action in the box at our end which was obscured by my fellow fans standing in front of me. The Egyptian could have increased the lead soon after as a through ball was played towards him, but Karnezis was out to save on the edge of the box. At last a Watford attack as Femenía went on a run down the wing before crossing for Pereyra whose header looped wide of the target. It went a bit quiet then for a while (thank goodness) the next action was a decent attack by the Hornets as Doucouré broke free of the Liverpool defence but decided against taking a shot so passed to Femenia and the home defence were able to clear. Liverpool were forced into an early substitution due to an injury to Can, who was replaced by Milner. The Hornets launched another attack as Deeney played the ball out to Pereyra who did brilliantly to beat his man and get into the box, he played the ball across the goal, but it was blocked. At the other end, Watford’s day was summed up in a single move as Prödl made a brilliant tackle to dispossess Salah and then immediately lost the ball. Watford’s best chance of the game so far came came as Pereyra crossed for Richarlison, whose header was on target but straight at Karius. The next move seemed to start with a foul on the edge of the Liverpool box as Pereyra was pulled to the ground, but the referee was unmoved and the home side launched a counter attack allowing Salah to break free before playing a ball to Firmino who was stopped by a brilliant save from Karnezis. Just when I thought that Watford could get to half time only one down, Liverpool scored the simplest of goals as Robertson played a lovely cross to an unmarked Salah who had the easiest of tap-ins (I am told, again my view of the shot was obscured).
The home side increased their lead early in the second half, while many were still in the concourse enjoying their half time refreshments. I actually saw this one as it was at the other end of the ground, or I thought I did and was under the impression that it marked Salah’s hat trick, but he turned provider on this occasion as his cross from a narrow angle was turned into the net by an audacious flick from Firmino. Watford had a couple of decent chances to reduce the deficit. First a shot from Holebas flew just wide of the near post. Then Gomez was shown a yellow card for a foul on Richarlison, allowing Pereyra to step up and hit a lovely free kick that bounced off the top of the crossbar. The Hornets attacked again as a lovely ball was played out to Holebas who whipped the cross in but Karius plucked the ball out of the air. At the other end there were shouts for handball as Mariappa blocked a cross from Firmino, but the referee saw no infringement. Pereyra did really well to battle past a couple of defenders before crossing for Richarlison, who was being challenged so was off balance and could only manage a weak header that was easily blocked. There was a rash of substitutions midway through the second half as, first, Hughes replaced Richarlison, then Okaka replaced Deeney to much muttering behind me. “We’re three goals down and he takes off a striker”. I couldn’t help thinking that going for it would be reckless at this stage when all we were playing for was goal difference.
For the home side Oxlade-Chamberlain replaced Wijnaldum. The young substitute was the next to test Karnezis, but it was an easy save for the Watford keeper. Karnezis was less successful a couple of minutes later as Salah got the ball in the box and, despite there being a number of defenders in his way, he tricked them all and finished for his hat-trick and Liverpool’s fourth. Watford hadn’t given up and Okaka broke into the Liverpool box, but with less success as his shot was blocked. The final substitution for each side saw Ings replacing Firmino and Janmaat on for Britos, who had had a torrid time of it against Salah so was likely happy to be relieved of his duties. Ings almost scored with his first attempt, but Karnezis made a great save, stretching and managing to get a hand to the shot to keep it out. But Liverpool were not to be denied their fifth goal as Salah set up Ings whose shot was blocked so the ball rebounded to the Egyptian to score his fourth goal of the evening. Salah had one more chance, and my heart sank as I saw him bearing down on the Watford goal, but Karnezis was able to get in the way and block the attempt. As the fourth official held up the board indicating only 2 minutes of added time, Pete observed that it must have been a sympathy decision. There was a rare moment to make me smile as the ball ended up in one of the stands and Mane leant over the hoardings to retrieve it while Prödl held his legs. Watford had one last chance to score a consolation goal as Femenía swung a cross in, but Matip was on hand to clear and the whistle went on another heavy defeat for the Hornets at Anfield.
As we left the stadium, I was very grateful to see that the snow had stopped falling so I had a very pleasant walk back to Sandhills station before taking a seat on a sparsely occupied train back to my friend’s house on the coast.
I arrived back to a sympathetic welcome, although I couldn’t say that I was either cold or wet, just rather miserable about the result of the game. But it was hardly an unexpected outcome and I found myself baffled about the constant complaints that I heard from the people behind me. I had observed early in the game that Liverpool were simply better than us, but that didn’t seem to register. Some fans seem unable to view a game from that perspective so spend ninety minutes berating their players for losing to a team playing some brilliant football.
There were some positives for the Hornets. Karnezis, despite letting in five goals, put on a decent show. But my highlight was a decent performance from Pereyra, who put together some lovely moves which cheered me up greatly on a day when there were few moments of joy. He seems to shine against more talented opposition as he clearly feels that he is less likely to be clattered.
But, in the end, it was the Salah show. He is an exceptional footballer and sometimes you have to just appreciate that and move on. This game was never one that we targeted to gain points, so we should all recharge our batteries over the international break and return, refreshed, for the visit of Bournemouth.