Cardiff vs Liverpool: Five things we learned as Jurgen Klopp's side return to top of Premier League table

Cardiff 0-2 Liverpool: The Reds were forced to hold their nerve in an at times nailbiting win

Tom Kershaw
Sunday 21 April 2019 16:03
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Jurgen Klopp: Liverpool made a statement by reaching Champions League semi-finals

Liverpool ground out a close-fought and at times nailbiting 2-0 win at Cardiff to return - albeit temporarily - to the top of the Premier League table and remain breathing down the necks of Manchester City.

It was an angsty performance from Jurgen Klopp's side, who were almost caught off-guard by Cardiff's fast start and then saw Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah spurn a number of clear-cut chances in a deadlocked first-half.

But after 57 minutes, Gigi Wijnaldum drove home from a well-worked corner routine to give Liverpool the lead and bring with it a wave of relief.

The nerves would resurface though during a tense 20 minutes which followed as Sean Morrison headed over from five-yards while faced only by an empty net, before James Milner converted from the penalty spot with nine minutes to play after Mohamed Salah was needlessly brought down in the box.

Here are five things we learned from the game.

Cardiff almost catch Liverpool off-guard in fast start

With precious time to scramble the points needed to escape relegation, Neil Warnock’s side started fast and fearlessly in the face of free-scoring Liverpool. And despite clearly frittering in a different world in regard to technical quality, it was the Bluebirds who took it to the title-chasers in the opening fifteen minutes, using the speed of Oumar Niasse up front to spearhead counter-attacks.

There were also worrying signs for Trent Alexander-Arnold, who was beaten ends up by the combination of quick feet and sharp bursts of pace from Nathaniel Mendez-Laing on the left-wing. One such move saw a cross drift across the face of goal that Junior Hoilett should well have taken first-time and diverted home in the game’s first clear-cut opportunity. Five minutes later, and the England right-back was left face-down on the grass by a cute chop inside from the winger that again fizzed through the box. It was an edge that Jurgen Klopp’s side perhaps didn’t anticipate and left them somewhat flustered, with Andrew Robertson dishing out a series of scold rants to Alexander-Arnold and Sadio Mane as the Reds realised they had another gritty trial on their hands.

Firmino missed a brilliant chance to ease Liverpool's nerves early on in the game 

Firmino flounders chance to ease nerves

After the unsettling opening quarter, Liverpool cut Cardiff’s defence to limp ribbons with a direct and incisive counter-attack. Joel Matip cut out Cardiff’s midfield with a drilled pass to Mohamed Salah, who casually tucked the ball inside to Mane whose weighted flick ran inch-perfectly through to Firmino. With either corner to aim at and not a trailing defender to harry him in touching distance, the Brazilian leant backwards as though ready to slump into a deck chair and spooned his shot high over the bar from 12 yards. It was a terrible miss, and the type which stoked a slew of burning nerves and angst to come with each close-cut chance that followed

Salah squanders

And then it was the turn of Liverpool’s talisman and his turbulent form to continue. Salah’s thunderous strike against Chelsea rightly left half of Merseyside open-mouthed and awestruck and was supposed to silence those pesky critics who have questioned his performances over the course of this season.

But twice in the first-half, it was the more tentative, and decidedly less clinical, version of the mercurial Egyptian who spurned two clear chances to put his side ahead. The first came by way of a deflected through-ball from Jordan Henderson, who again pulled the strings from his role as deep-lying anchor in the Reds’ midfield. The ball broke to Salah who raced in on goal down the right-flank but saw a tame effort flicked off the outside of his left-boot smothered well by Neil Etheridge.

Moments later, Salah again broke clear on the counter courtesy of another defence-splitting through ball from Henderson, but faced with only Bruno Ecuele Manga to beat, the ball wriggled somehow wriggled from under his feet having already appeared to work the space to whip a shot at the far post of his favoured left foot. Another set of chances that left Liverpool to become more restless.

Salah also missed a number of clear chances

A decisive set-piece

After the series of missed opportunities, it came to an old fashioned pre-worked corner routine to provide the pressure-alleviating dagger for Liverpool. At-first-glance, it almost appeared as though Alexander-Arnold had scuffed his cross, but instead it was driven straight into the path of Gigi Wijnaldum, whose half-volley rocketed into the top-corner to the relief of the Reds’ travelling supporters.

But while the goal forced Cardiff to open up and allowed Klopp’s side to dominate much of the rest of the game, it was still not without nerves as Henderson mimicked Firmino’s earlier miss from all of 10 yards.

The nerves around Liverpool, just as with City yesterday, are unavoidable, snapping away beneath the surface with every tense finish. This time, it was Salah who redeemed his early errors by winning a penalty needlessly offered by the tugging arms of Morrison, with Milner confirming the victory.

Again, Liverpool were able to hold on and avoid blinking first in a breathless finish to the season. Another three points secured, but the title race remains unmistakably in City’s hands.

Wijnaldum celebrates scoring the opener

Cardiff’s woeful streak continues, but promise to be taken

This defeat condemned Cardiff to their 11th defeat against the top-six this season, a pointless whitewash that left them with a goal difference of -26 alone. But their recent resurgence and resilience against Liverpool today showed a backbone that promises they are far from resigned to fate in returning to the Championship.

Their starting XI today featured nine of the players who took them to the Premier League, and they displayed tireless tenacity in a match they were never expected to take anything from, yet still came so close to doing so when Sean Morrison’s free-header from inside the six-yard box, after a flapping attempt to clear from Alisson, somehow squirmed over the bar.

Next week, Warnock’s side travel to Fulham where they must, under all circumstances, leave Craven Cottage with three points. If they are able to do so, they may well just be able to pip Chris Hughton’s Brighton, who are clinging on by frayed string as of late.

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