LIVERPOOL, England – There were only 2,000 fans at Anfield to celebrate Roberto Firmino’s 90th minute winner for Liverpool against Tottenham Hotspur, but the noise the small crowd made told them all about the importance of the late header game Brazilian striker. Firmino knew it too, as evidenced by his celebratory run deep in his own half, while manager Jürgen Klopp’s traditional tribute produced almost as much energy after beating The Kop as it did the night he went mad after the famous Champions League semi-final victory against Barcelona.
Fans Firmino and Klopp celebrated great because they all knew that this 2-1 win had a huge impact on what was probably a much closer title race than Liverpool’s championship procession last season.
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It was a game decided by fine margins in a campaign where the title itself could be decided by such unique moments. The goal put Liverpool three points ahead of Jose Mourinho’s Spurs at the top of the table and underscored their status as favorites to win two titles in a row after the club’s 30-year wait for the English champions’ coronation finally came to an end earlier this year.
But while Mourinho has been criticized by the purists for his team’s approach to the game – Spurs were defensive, well organized and loved to use Son Heung-Min and Harry Kane as freestanding outlets – Tottenham proved a real competitor against the best teams in the country . This was Tottenham’s first Premier League loss since their Matchday 1 home defeat to Everton. This unbeaten run has shown the team’s progress since Mourinho 13 months ago.
At Anfield, they underscored this progress by taking on the challenge of facing Liverpool. They frustrated Klopp’s team, going on the verge of taking the lead after Son equalized Mohamed Salah’s opening goal and generally gave in as best they could. Yes, statistics will show that Liverpool dominated possession and opened up more opportunities, but luckily, football is about more than just numbers on a chart and Tottenham’s disciplined and persistent performance was proof that they were a title challenge this season can exist.
“We played to win, we didn’t play to get a point,” said Mourinho. “One point would have been a pretty fair result, but we played for the win and we had the greatest chance of winning. The game was always under control. I think it was a very undeserved result, but that’s football.”
Mourinho held out the truth to indicate that his team had better odds. Harry Kane missed twice and Steven Bergwijn hit the post, but Liverpool also hit the wood through Sadio Mane and all three strikers had good scoring opportunities. But Mourinho rightly said that his team deserved a point for their defensive performance, if not for their daring attacking play. However, they were not as negative as the Anti-Mourinho Brigade will claim.
Klopp described Spurs as a “counterattacking monster” before saying Liverpool “deserved the three points massively” and insisted Son’s goal was offside. The German’s comments hinted at his relief at taking the win rather than offering a real reflection of the game, but ultimately his team was the one to take all three points and Liverpool will look back on this game as maybe the night in who they play The title defense has really shifted into gear.
Still, it could easily have gone the other way. Both Kane and Bergwijn were close to giving Spurs a 2-1 lead in front of Firmino’s late goal.
However, Tottenham’s missed opportunities and Firmino’s late goal are the fine details that determine winners and losers, and Liverpool have become accustomed to capitalizing on key moments in recent seasons. This was the third straight season they’d scored at home against Spurs in the 90th minute or later. Liverpool know how to take advantage when it matters, but that’s a lesson Spurs has yet to learn. However, they have become a stronger and more confident team under Mourinho and their performance at Anfield showed their growing maturity under the former Chelsea and Manchester United manager.
Southampton’s £ 15million signing by Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg this summer could prove to be one of the bargains of the season. The midfielder provides a reliable buffer in front of the foursome. Hojbjerg’s tenacity makes him a perfect Mourinho player, and his pace of work allowed Spurs to defend deeply and use Kane and Son to counterattack.
On that occasion, Mourinho’s game plan didn’t get the reward it deserved, but the two clubs will meet again at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in late January and Klopp will know the game will be another important test for Liverpool’s qualifications. In this game, the fine margins could favor Tottenham and give them the title boost that this game gave Liverpool.