Liverpool will head for the Club World Cup in Qatar on Sunday comfortable in the knowledge their commanding lead in the Premier League will not be troubled any time soon. This was far from a vintage display by Jürgen Klopp’s team, in fact they were fairly average and flattered by the scoreline, but a remarkable 26th win from their last 27 league games was the hallmark of would-be champions in its own way.
Mohamed Salah struck twice to down a determined Watford side who, with more conviction and quality in front of goal, could have given Nigel Pearson something more tangible than a positive performance on his first game as the club’s new manager. The Premier League leaders never got into their stride, which was perfectly understandable after an exhaustive effort at Salzburg in the Champions League in midweek, but they produced the flashes of quality to turn a difficult afternoon into another victorious one.
The first half had been a non-event for Liverpool, to the growing irritation of the home crowd, and encouraging for Pearson’s efforts to instil organisation and belief in Watford when one moment demonstrated the chasm between the top and bottom of the Premier League. It was not one Abdoulaye Doucouré will recall fondly. The Watford midfielder should have put the visitors ahead when he was presented with a gilt-edged chance in front of the Kop goal. Seconds later, having made a complete mess of the opportunity, Doucouré was presented with a clear view of how it should be done as Salah immaculately swept Liverpool ahead.
Watford escaped several times in the first half behind James Milner, Andy Robertson’s replacement at left-back, with Troy Deeney close to converting Ismaïla Sarr’s inviting low cross in the opening minutes. The striker just failed to connect in front of Alisson’s goal. Sarr was involved again when he released Étienne Capoue into space on the right. From the byline, the midfielder rolled the ball back for the unmarked Doucouré to convert but he scuffed the shot horribly and Joe Gomez prevented Gerard Deulofeu pouncing on the loose ball. From the resulting, and wrongly-awarded corner, Liverpool made Doucouré pay with a lightning counter.
Roberto Firmino released Sadio Mané with an overhead kick. The Senegal international sent Salah racing through but with plenty to do as Kiko Femenía came across to cover. That was the full-back’s intention at least. With a flick of the instep Salah cut inside, leaving Femenía flailing, and curled a delightful finish from the edge of the area around Ben Foster and inside the far post. It was Salah’s seventh goal in five appearances against Watford for Liverpool.
Until that point the leaders had been frustrated by Watford’s resilient defending, Foster slowing the game down by taking an age over every goal kick and an unusual lack of cohesion among their forward line. And Liverpool escaped a second time when Sarr became the latest Watford player to lose all composure with only Alisson to beat. The £25m summer signing looked certain to equalise when Deulofeu broke down the right and Liverpool’s goalkeeper tipped his low centre into the path of Sarr. The Senegal winger, no more than eight yards out and completely unmarked, sliced the shot skywards with his shin. Doucouré, somewhat inevitably, scooped the loose ball over.
Sarr forced Alisson into a decent save early in the second half but Liverpool thought they had doubled their advantage when Mané steered a superb header beyond Foster from Xherdan Shaqiri’s delightful cross. The celebrations had died down and Watford were about to restart in the centre circle when VAR made its belated intervention. Mané, VAR spotted following a lengthy review, was a fraction ahead of Craig Cathcart when Shaqiri delivered from the left. No goal.
Deulofeu almost capitalised on the reprieve when released in behind Trent Alexander-Arnold by Doucouré. Alisson rushed off his line to deny the former Everton winger with a crucial save but Liverpool continued to live dangerously. Heavy first touches from both Salah and Firmino allowed Foster to gather when the Liverpool forwards were clean through on goal. At the other end Sarr appealed in vain for a penalty after a nudge in the back from Virgil van Dijk as he raced into the area. Van Dijk almost put through his own net when he steered a wayward pass from the substitute Andre Gray wide of Alisson but also just wide of the goal. Deulofeu struck the outside of the near post with the resulting corner, Sarr volleyed another decent chance wide from the edge of the area and Watford unnerved Anfield with several dangerous free-kicks in the closing stages.
But Liverpool got the job done yet again. In the 89th minute Mané broke down the right and centred for Divock Origi. The Liverpool substitute scuffed his free shot at Foster’s goal but Salah converted an improvised back-heel that was allowed to stand following another lengthy VAR review. The leaders march on.