Liverpool rode a relentless wave of early attacks to beat Tottenham Hotspur 2-0 at Anfield on Saturday and snapped their worrying slump.
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Sadio Mane grabbed both goals in the battle between the top four contenders as Spurs’ awful record at Anfield continues and Mauricio Pochettino‘s men lost for the first time in 10 Premier League matches.
Here’s what we learned from a frantic encounter on Merseyside.
MANE IS THE MAN
When he’s good, he’s very good. Sadio Mane was the Sadio Mane on Saturday, ripping apart Tottenham’s defense every time he picked up the ball in the first half.
In truth, he could’ve had four goals in about five first half minutes… but he had to settle for two in Liverpool’s first Premier League win of 2017.
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His two goals in two minutes proved to be decisive and the Senegalese forward is a sight for sore eyes for the Anfield faithful. There’s no coincidence that Liverpool’s terrible run of 1 win from 10 games in all competitions (before their victory over Tottenham) coincided with Mane’s absence due to him playing at the Africa Cup of Nations with Senegal.
Now he’s back, Liverpool’s attack looks so much more dynamic. His pace forces defenders to try and drop deep and when they don’t the first goal happens. One direct ball and bang, 1-0. When Tottenham’s defense then decided to sit back, that gave plenty of room for the likes of Adam Lallana, Roberto Firmino and Philippe Coutinho to roam in.
[ LISTEN: 2 Robbies- Sadio sinks Spurs ]
Mane is the missing piece of the jigsaw and Liverpool missed him badly during his time away at AFCON.
Now he’s back, the Senegalese flyer will try and propel them to a top four finish. His tally of 11 PL goals (Liverpool’s highest scorer) will go a long way to doing that, but his electric pace frightens the life out of opposition defenders and allows plenty of space for his teammates to exploit.
Mane showed glimpses of his devastating finishing ability and directness at Southampton over the past two seasons — the fastest hat trick in PL history against Aston Villa in 2015 proved that — but he’s been so consistent for Liverpool this season and the 24-year-old can rip apart opponents in the blink of an eye. He is consistent, quick and is fine-tuning his calm finishing.
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Liverpool buying Mane for $42 million in the summer was an absolute steal.
SPURS HURT BY INJURIES
It’s easy to blame injuries for a lacklsuter performance and defeat, but Spurs were missing two of their key defensive players and it showed.
Both Danny Rose and Jan Vertonghen were out for the trip to Anfield and that allowed Liverpool to completely eviscerate the left-side of Tottenham’s defense. Usually, in a 3-4-3 formation, Rose would be the left wing back and Vertonghen the left-sided center back.
Liverpool went down that channel and doubled up on left back Ben Davies time and time again in the first half. They targeted the area and it worked as Liverpool has now gone nine games unbeaten against Tottenham in the PL and Spurs have lost 16 of their 25 visits to Anfield in the PL era.
Yes, Liverpool were missing starting center back Dejan Lovren on Saturday. But that was it. They were at full strength apart from that.
If Tottenham had Rose flying down the flank to counteract the attacking instincts of Mane and Nathaniel Clyne, plus Vertonghen in defense alongside Toby Alderweireld, I’d speculate that this game would’ve ended in a draw. There’s no way with those two on the pitch that Spurs would’ve been caught cold and exposed so ruthlessly for Mane’s two goals.
Those defensive issues spread through the team. Victor Wanyama and Mousa Dembele were overrun in midfield which led to Harry Kane, Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli being isolated in attacking areas. Liverpool did a job on Spurs. That job centered on them getting behind the left-side of their weakened defense.
REALITY CHECK FOR BOTH
This result and the past few weeks have acted as a reality check for both teams.
Liverpool and Tottenham are challengers for the top four. Nothing more. Nothing less.
Now, myself and many others were waxing lyrical about Tottenham before this game and I firmly believe that if Chelsea slip up then Spurs can catch them. Yet after this defeat, if Chelsea win at Burnley on Sunday they’ll open a 12-point gap on second-place Tottenham and third-place Arsenal with 13 games to go. Liverpool and Man City will be 13 points back of Chelsea.
The title is Chelsea’s. Let’s be real.
Now, for Liverpool and Tottenham there should be no shame in challenging for a top four finish. Especially this season.
With Manchester United gaining momentum week by week as they’re 16 games unbeaten in the PL, plus Arsenal hanging around and Manchester City figuring things out, the race to finish in the top four is intensifying. Five into three doesn’t go and Liverpool and Spurs are two of the five teams vying for a top four finish. Liverpool needed this win big time to keep themselves in the top four hunt after being overtaken by Man United before kick off. There will be plenty of movement in and out of the top four in the final months of the season.
The fight for a top four spot could well become the theme of the 2016-17 season with Chelsea galloping away.
As Klopp and Pochettino continue to mold their young teams into their aggressive, direct philosophy of play, they are still battling side-by-side with the financial powers of Man City, Chelsea and Man United. That notion should not be overlooked.
It’s been a disappointing few weeks for Liverpool and now Spurs will have to pick themselves up for the upcoming FA Cup and UEFA Europa League games knowing their title hopes have faded drastically. That’s okay.
This reality check was much-needed for both clubs. At this stage in their projects, finishing in the top four is bang on schedule.