Sport Editor Kit Shepard reports from Molineux, where Wolves pushed Premier League table-toppers Liverpool all the way in a fine game
Liverpool stretched their lead at the top of the Premier League to sixteen points on Thursday night, as a Roberto Firmino winner in the 84th minute gave them all three points against a valiant Wolves side.
Jordan Henderson opened the scoring early but Wolves more than held their own against the side that has been untouchable this season, and their sustained pressure was rewarded when Raul Jimenez levelled shortly after half-time. The hosts looked the more likely to find a winner for much of the second half, but Firmino’s sucker-punch added to the long list of crucial late goals for Liverpool this season.
In front of a sensational atmosphere under the Molineux lights, the hosts threatened to ruin Liverpool’s hopes of an unbeaten league season. ‘Wolves is doing so unbelievably well’, insisted Reds manager Jurgen Klopp in front of the media at the post-match press conference. ‘They’re so different to everything else you face during a year’.
Finding ways to score when absorbing pressure has been one of Klopp’s team’s trademarks in this domineering season, and it did not take them long to remind Wolves. Just they appeared to be on the back foot, the visitors were ahead inside ten minutes. In another Liverpool staple, it was Trent Alexander-Arnold, having made a desperate clearance from a Wolves free-kick moments earlier, who whipped in a beauty of a corner onto the head of captain Henderson, who guided the ball past Rui Patricio’s grasping fingertips.
Unfazed, the scores were nearly levelled moments later but Matt Doherty, who rarely spurns golden opportunities, could not find the target with a free header following a short corner. Wolves continued to cause the league’s best defence problems, with the wide men testing the Liverpool back four’s high-line and a roaming Adama Traore, who Klopp described as ‘pretty much unplayable’, giving Molineux glimpses of one of his marauding dribbles. However, the Reds largely answered the hosts’ questions without the need for last-ditch, and keeper Alisson was not troubled.
The Reds’ potency was weakened by the loss of Sadio Mane in the 33rd minute, who went down after ‘he felt something in his hamstring” according to Klopp. ‘We don’t know obviously [the severity of the injury], we’ll have to wait’. He was replaced by new signing Takumi Minamino, and while this was far from ideal for Klopp, he took heart from the Japanese international’s Premier League debut. ‘For the first Premier League game [he did] exceptionally well, and he’s completely integrated in the game and the team, and that’s really good’.
In the opposing camp, despite going into the break with an undeserved deficit, Wolves manager Nuno Espirito Santo’s half-time message was nothing unusual. ‘We speak like [we do at] all the half-times’, the Portuguese boss revealed to the media in his post-match press conference. ‘It is our job to find the solutions, to help the players [adjust] the team. Sometimes it goes well, sometimes it doesn’t’.
It certainly went well on this occasion. Seven minutes into the second half, a strong run from Jimenez allowed him to find Traore on the right, who in turn picked out the Mexican striker with a delightful cross on the move. Jimenez duly converted for his twentieth goal of the season, triggering raucous celebrations from the home fans.
Now stationed permanently on the right, Traore continued to cause all kinds of problems, and Liverpool needed every trick in the book to keep the scores level. A cynical foul from Andy Robertson. A fine low save from Alisson to keep out a Traore drive. Another stop by the Brazilian keeper to deny Jimenez, this time with his face. The best chance of them all perhaps did not create a shooting opportunity, with substitute Diogo Jota opting to pass to Jimenez when a simple ball to Traore would have put him clean through.
One way or another, Liverpool weathered the storm and, as the game entered its final ten minutes there was a growing fear around the ground that the hosts would be made to pay for not capitalizing on their second half superiority. Right on cue, Salah wriggled out of a tight space brilliantly and found Firmino, who fired into the top corner to leave Wolves shellshocked.
Nuno’s men could fashion one final chance for an equalizer in injury time, but Jota could only scoop a Jimenez cross, which was admittedly slightly behind him, over the bar from inside the six-yard box.
Yet aside from this scare, Liverpool did what you would expect a side who won every league game bar one this season, they saw the closing stages out comfortably. Title winners find a way to get three points, even when they are second-best and the Reds, who might end up as the greatest champion of them all come May, did just that once again.
As for Wolves, they will be disappointed at failing to move within three points of the Champions League places, especially after matching, if not outplaying, the champions-elect in every facet. Nevertheless, they can certainly be proud of a resolute display. ‘It was a good performance and a very good game of football’, expressed a typically upbeat Nuno. ‘We had the momentum in the second-half, we were always there, creating a lot of [chances], and we keep on going’.
Wolves (3-4-3): Patricio; Dendoncker, Coady, Saiss; Doherty, Moutinho (Gibbs-White, 87), Neves, Jonny; Traore, Jimenez, Neto (Jota, 77).
Liverpool (4-3-3): Alisson; Alexander-Arnold, Gomez, Van Dijk, Robertson; Henderson, Wijnaldum, Oxlade-Chamberlain (Fabinho, 70); Mane (Minamino, 33), Salah (Origi, 85), Firmino.
Referee: Michael Oliver
Bookings: Robertson (55).