Adam Lallana scored his first Liverpool goal for more than two-and-a-half years as Liverpool landed a sucker punch on Manchester United to preserve their unbeaten Premier League record.
Though the European champions’ winning streak in the league ends at 17, going back to their stalemate against Everton in March, Lallana’s cameo off the bench extended their lead over second-placed Manchester City to a healthy six points.
Earlier, Marcus Rashford had poked in a wonderful Daniel James cross while United were rarely troubled by their fierce rivals at the other end.
Their showing will give them heart, though the fact remains they have won just two of nine league games this season and are mired in 13th.
As is protocol in the Premier League this year, there was a hefty dose of VAR controversy. Jurgen Klopp was enraged after the video assistant refused to instruct referee Martin Atkinson of a foul on Divock Origi by Victor Lindelof in the build-up to Rashford’s goal.
Klopp was downright apoplectic moments later when VAR overturned a Sadio Mane goal moments later, as the ball had brushed the Senegal forward’s hand before he slotted home.
Here we VAR again
Not since the days of Sir Alex Ferguson – and Howard Webb – will armchair viewers have bayed as much for the blood of the Old Trafford officials. It’s the new, fandangled VAR we have to thank for that.
Letting United off the hook twice in several minutes is a sure-fire way to raise hackles, but the decisions in their specific ways were consistent. One was in line with what we’ve seen this weekend, the other with what we’ve seen the entire year.
Victor Lindelof undoubtedly made contact with Divock Origi’s leg before United swept up field to score. Was it enough for him the Belgian to topple to the floor? And had he already lost control of the ball? The existence of these questions meant that VAR could not overturn the goal.
🎙️ "James for Marcus Rashford!"— Sky Sports Premier League (@SkySportsPL) October 20, 2019
Think @GNev2 enjoyed that one? 🙌🏻
VAR controversially upholds Rashford opener and disallows Mane strike before Lallana leveller: https://t.co/rdc2TFkZeH pic.twitter.com/IuFDTIiGw3
A similar incident happened at Tottenham on Saturday, when Jan Vertonghen nibbled at Gerard Deulofeu several times only for Watford not to be awarded a penalty.
Those were the rules this week. What about before the international break? Marc Albrighton lightly tapped Mane’s ankle, and with the VAR winds blowing the other way, Liverpool got the spot-kick and proceeded to beat Leicester.
As for the handball, any incidental contact has seen goals struck off this season. It’s deeply unpopular – but ask yourself if we truly want to introduce more shades of grey to this nascent technology.
Solskjaer shows nous
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had a fortnight to furiously draw up a plan for stymieing the league leaders and save his own skin. Surprisingly for some, the blueprint was more or less the best United could have hoped for.
Axel Tuanzebe’s bizarre hip injury during the warm-up – just who are the strength and conditioning coaches at Carrington? – forced Marcos Rojo into an experimental back three, while Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Ashley Young were pushed so high up as to be genuine wing-backs.
That resulted in caution from Liverpool on the flanks, with Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson wary of letting Marcus Rashford and Daniel James slip inside to use their pace with the extra support. United were also able to shift Rojo and Lindelof out wider when called upon, and the visitors simply weren’t dynamic enough in midfield to capitalise on the space behind Scott McTominay and Fred in the centre.
What United possessed in energy wasn’t matched by ability. Andreas Pereira was sprightly, but several bone-headed decisions, particularly early on, illustrated why Solskjaer’s attack so often travels own cul-de-sacs.
Without James’ pace and two-footed menace they’d have had no success at all.
Bench pressed into action
Klopp eventually called upon the cavalry to spice up that mild midfield. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, the lesser-spotted Lallana and then Naby Keita filtered into the game over the course of the last half an hour and started to drive their side at United’s weak points.
Forceful dribbles and smart, sharp runs begun to pick at the hosts’ seams with Lallana doing much of the heavy lifting in that regard, winning free-kicks and simply giving Liverpool an outlet.
⚽️ Adam Lallana has ended a run of 36 apps without a goal for Liverpool, since the 3-0 PL win v Middlesbrough, May 2017 - scored 4 goals in Dec 2016 but only once since before today pic.twitter.com/FBM6RVlaox— Sky Sports Statto (@SkySportsStatto) October 20, 2019
His moment came when Young decided not to track his run but it was a canny one nonetheless by a player who could well still be shown the door come the summer.
Escaping with a point was reward enough after a limp display. The greatest prize, however, was a reminder to themselves that they have the personnel to rectify a perceived weak point and apply dynamism to the centre of the park.
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Pep Guardiola paid tribute to Manchester City midfielders Fernandinho and Rodri after they kept a clean sheet in defence to help the Premier League champions win 2-0 at Crystal Palace.
With John Stones recently back from injury and only able to take a place on the bench and Nicolas Otamendi absent after suffering a knock while on international duty with Argentina, City were left short of options at centre-back.
That meant it was left to Rodri to drop back alongside fellow midfielder Fernandinho into the heart of City’s defence at Selhurst Park, where first-half goals from Gabriel Jesus and David Silva saw them move to within five points of leaders Liverpool, albeit having played a game more.
“We had a lot of chances, unfortunately we cannot convert more, but it’s OK, we have next time,” Guardiola said.
“Nico had a big kick in the international with Argentina and in training yesterday I decided and thought about it.
“It’s a long season and we are going to use alternatives. John is now back, but he didn’t play for a long time.
“I thank them (Fernandinho and Rodri) both so much because it is not easy to play different positions with strikers like Crystal Palace have in Wilfried Zaha and Jordan Ayew and Christian Benteke. They did really well.”
Jesus started up front for City with Sergio Aguero, who is joint top of the Premier League scoring charts, an unused substitute at Selhurst Park.
The 22-year-old Brazil international broke the deadlock in the 39th minute with his 50th goal for City, and it proved an invaluable contribution as Guardiola’s men bounced back from their shock 2-0 home loss to Wolves two weeks ago.
The City boss said: “We have two incredible strikers. I will not talk about how important Sergio Aguero is for this club and ourselves. He is so important.
“Gabriel Jesus came back from Brazil and had rhythm and Sergio was 10 days without rhythm and today I decided (who played), but both are important.
“When Sergio plays he is a good level and when Gabriel plays he is a good level. I decide it on many things.”
The former Barcelona and Bayern Munich coach was less happy with VAR’s decision not to award Kevin De Bruyne a penalty in the second half when he went down in the area following a challenge with Zaha.
“It’s diving. It’s diving, it’s diving,” Guardiola sarcastically stated. “Every weekend it is diving. Bournemouth, here. But against Tottenham it was hands, real hands in the 94th minute. It’s diving again.”
Palace came into the match having climbed up to sixth place on the back of successive wins over Norwich and West Ham, and another victory would have lifted them above their opponents.
However, it was not to be and Palace boss Roy Hodgson admitted: “They’re just a very good team.
“At the moment we’re not fighting on exactly a level playing field. We are playing against a team which is packed full of world-class players and even the ones who come off the bench and comes in when the world-class players goes down for some reason, he is also probably world class.”
He added: “It was hard to get the composure that we were looking to get in order to mount attacks of our own but we kept going and I’m pleased about that and I’m proud of the team for doing that.”
Tottenham boss Mauricio Pochettino is banking on his side’s late equaliser in a 1-1 draw against rock-bottom Watford being the turning point of the season.
Spurs’ crisis looked like plummeting to new depths against a side who were beaten 8-0 in their last away game as they trailed to Abdoulaye Doucoure’s sixth-minute goal.
Another lacklustre display, shorn of any creativity, was rescued by Dele Alli’s equaliser in the final five minutes, but it massively papered over the cracks.
Spurs have competed at the top of the English game in the last few years, but this is now a team that looks more and more like it has run its course under Pochettino.
However, the Argentinian hopes this can be a catalyst to recreate former highs.
“It was so important in the way that we achieved the point in the end, the team was fighting, we showed character,” Pochettino said.
“We have quality but when you are in this type of situation the most important thing is the character you need to show.
“Talent is after, you need to fight and you need to run and you need to be strong in your mind, the effort is double. This is the first step to build our confidence again.
“The team after the 7-2 against Bayern was massive and after five years I think it was the first time that we receive a knock.
“Of course it is new for us, it’s new for the players, it’s a new moment and of course we need time to recover.
“But we need to take it step-by-step, again the first action we conceded again, a very bad goal and then it was tough.
“The most important thing was to show the togetherness and the faith in us and be focused only to improve our game.”
Watford’s quest for a first win of the season – and first of Quique Sanchez Flores’ second spell in charge – fell heartbreakingly short as they were left aggrieved at VAR.
The decision-making system allowed Alli’s goal to stand, even though Sanchez Flores saw a foul by Harry Kane in the build-up, but then the officials at Stockley Park pressed the wrong button, which led to ‘no goal’ being shown on the screens.
Mauricio gives his verdict on today's game. pic.twitter.com/z0byhlYuvc— Tottenham Hotspur (@SpursOfficial) October 19, 2019
Perhaps more importantly, they were denied what looked a clear penalty after Jan Vertonghen appeared to trip Gerard Deulofeu.
Flores was unhappy Spurs’ equaliser was not ruled out.
“I think it is a foul by Kane, he pushed with two hands” he said. “That is just my opinion. It is very weird, there are many interpretations. It would be good to know what happened.”
On the penalty, he said: “You have probably seen it more times, my opinion is it is very clear, it is a penalty. If you stop the match it is very clear to see.
“I don’t know how it works, I thought that VAR was something objective, but I am starting to think it is very, very subjective.”
Hawk-Eye Innovations, the company that provides the VAR technology, has apologised for the confusion surrounding Alli’s equaliser and said it would look into the incident to ensure there is no repeat.