One bad decision cost Liverpool two crucial points at Anfield on Sunday as Wayne Rooney’s late penalty cancelled out Mo Salah’s wonder goal to give Everton an undeserved share of the spoils.
No it wasn’t Jurgen Klopp’s decision to leave out his creative Brazilians, Phillipe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino. Of course, with the result not going to plan, Klopp’s rotation is the obvious thing to blame – low hanging fruit if you will.
But Liverpool dominated this game from start to finish and created enough to have been three up by the time Craig Pawson pointed to the spot after Dominic Calvert-Lewin took a tumble in the box.
Everton clearly came for a goalless draw and, from the way they kept playing after conceding – with Rooney spending more time chasing back in his own box and Pickford pinging kicks straight to his opposite number – it seemed they would have been just as pleased to leave with a small margin defeat.
Besides, Klopp’s rotation had been a feature of their recent run of five wins in six Premier League games and the German has been largely vindicated in his choice to trust his full squad. I have read elsewhere that a derby against Everton isn’t the right game for resting players.
Yet, sentiments aside, there is no reason to insist on the strongest possible line up for an Everton side that is, on Sunday’s showing, the poorest Premier League team to grace Anfield this season.
I could understand criticism of resting players against top four rivals like Chelsea, not this Everton side. For me, resting Salah at Stoke was a far bigger call than rotating against this Everton team. Sentiments are all well and good, but the manager has to think beyond that and, at the end of the day, it’s the same three points at stake.
I still remember the incredulity when Rafa Benitez withdrew Steven Gerrard from a derby game at Goodison with the scores tied 1-1 in 2007. Even Gerrard looked surprised. His replacement was a 20-year old Lucas Leiva, who went on to force the penalty that secured the win. Imagine the backlash had Liverpool lost that match.
No it wasn’t Craig Pawson’s decision to give a penalty for what appeared, at best, a coming together of two players in the box, and at worst, a well sold con job dive by the young English striker. Opinions are, of course, divided on this but it looked a particularly soft call to me.
That Pawson was a good 25 yards behind the play doesn’t assure me that he actually saw what he thought he saw.
But controversial calls happen in football – it’s just the nature of the beast – and Liverpool had opportunities to make this call as inconsequential as the one at Brighton a week earlier. Remember? Of course you don’t. Liverpool put five goals past Brighton that afternoon, so the small matter of referee Whatsisname awarding a soft penalty to the home side has been largely confined to the recesses of our memories.
The decision that cost Liverpool actually came long before Pawson’s penalty call. Just two minutes after Salah had curled exquisitely beyond Pickford. Sadio Mane beat Williams to Solanke’s pass and broke into open space towards the Everton goal. For once, Everton had committed bodies forward and there was no catching the speedy Senegalese star.
Only Cuco Martina and Pickford stood between Mane and a decisive second Liverpool goal, but he also had allies, in the shape of Salah, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Solanke running in alongside him.
The easy option would have been a sideways pass for one of those to tap home from close range, but Mane chose to shoot, left footed, and dragged his effort wide of the post. Of course, had he found the net, as he should easily have from 7 yards out, as he probably would nine times out of ten, there would have been no complaints – that’s how these things go – but his decision to shoot when there were far better options available denied Liverpool what would surely have been a decisive, two-goal lead at the break.
It’s no surprise that the usual search for scapegoats threw up the obvious suspects: Klopp for daring to rotate in the derby, Pawson for giving a penalty that wasn’t and Lovren for carelessly fouling in the box. And, of course Jordan Henderson…..just for being Jordan Henderson.
Yet, Sadio Mane’s decision – to shoot and not pass – proved ultimately more damaging than anything else.