Watford 0 Liverpool 1
Liverpool will consider this evidence that even the ugliest of contests can be transformed by one split second of jaw-dropping brilliance.
An utterly forgettable game will end up living long in the memory for its match-winning moment, conjured by a player who tends to go unsung amid the forward thinkers who hog the limelight more regularly. Emre Can, his name chorused into the night sky by the large travelling support, may never score a better goal than the bicycle kick which punctured Watford in first-half stoppage time here.
It was a fine winner to ensure his team have reasserted some control on their pursuit of Champions League qualification after recent blips. The gap from fifth-placed Manchester United has been opened to four points with their destiny wrested back into their own hands and, on paper at least, a kinder run-in ahead. Jürgen Klopp would argue a win in this corner of Hertfordshire proves they can see off the division’s more unfancied sides. Maintain that over the next three weeks and a return to Europe’s elite will be assured.
This was Liverpool’s unanticipated opportunity. A team who had wilted at home to Crystal Palace in their last game had fully expected to find themselves outside the top four at kick-off here, only for weekend slips by both Manchester clubs to hand them a reprieve.
Klopp had insisted “we didn’t worry too much, so we don’t worry now” just before kick-off when asked about the season’s bigger picture, but his team needed to deliver a response to that loss at Anfield to ease the nerves. In that context, the grind this game became did not bode well until Can conjured the remarkable amid so much that had been forgettable.
How his team had needed his flash of inspiration. Watford were abrasive and disruptive, a tone set by the leggy Abdoulaye Doucouré in central midfield and a backline which remained awkward and rugged even after Miguel Britos was withdrawn through injury.
Liverpool, for all their time on the ball, laboured to make inroads with their cause hardly helped by an injury of their own. Philippe Coutinho had wriggled into the penalty area four minutes in only to collide with Adrian Mariappa and crumple to the turf clutching his right thigh. He lasted nine more minutes, largely spent wincing whenever he attempted even a semblance of a jog as the substitute Adam Lallana bellowed encouragement from the touchline, before hobbling away with a dead leg.
Losing the Brazilian represented a considerable blow, particularly with Sadio Mané already absent long term, though Lallana will have welcomed his own opportunity. The England midfielder had only had “two proper sessions and a recovery session” according to his manager after five weeks out with a thigh complaint. He duly eased himself into the scrappy contest before, four minutes from the interval, connecting sweetly from distance with Heurelho Gomes’s punch to thump a volley back over the goalkeeper which struck the crossbar. The sublime effort was completely out of context with everything up to then, but it would be trumped before the half-time whistle sounded.
Lucas Leiva's diagonal pass into the area had been optimistic at best but Can, darting towards the penalty spot between Nordin Amrabat and Sebastian Prödl, leapt into an improbable scissor kick and connected sweetly in midair. Gomes, never expecting such improvised brilliance, was too shocked to muster a save but he would never have reached the ball anyway. The goal was a thing of beauty, and scored by a player who, with 12 months left on his contract and negotiations having reached an impasse, has suggested he would prefer to occupy the deep-lying water-carrier role than a brief further up the field. Much more of this and he may be likelier to secure his wage demands.
The shock quickly gave way to delighted relief among the visiting contingent, but it had to be a platform for victory at a ground where Liverpool had capitulated last season. They carried more of a threat thereafter, their mood improved with a lead established and the onus all on Watford to generate some impetus of their own. Gomes's reactions were smart in turning aside Divock Origi's curled shot, and his positioning astute when Joël Matip's clever pass sent the Belgian sprinting beyond Christian Kabasele to fire another attempt at goal.
The hosts, disjointed and uncertain, looked a team convinced their campaign had run its course for all that Walter Mazzarri had implored his players pre-match to claim the points required for mathematical safety. Aside from Mbaye Niang's first-half nuisance value, and one long-range attempt from Etienne Capoue which Simon Mignolet appeared to turn over the bar for all the officials' award of a goal kick, they had offered precious little attacking thrust.
Isaac Success was flung on to offer yet more brawn across a three-man front-line, with Daryl Janmaat almost embarrassing Mignolet with a cross-shot that veered unexpectedly towards the near-post. Yet the Watford manager seemed to spend most of the period slapping the side of his dug-out in frustration at his team's shortcomings. Even after a season when they have rarely been embroiled in a relegation scrap, dissatisfaction grumbles on. This club may sense the time has come for managerial upheaval again in the summer.