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Liverpool continue title charge despite Salah’s absence

BOURNEMOUTH, England — Liverpool’s comprehensive 4-0 victory at Bournemouth saw Jurgen Klopp’s side send out a warning to the chasing pack as they extended their lead at the top of the Premier League to five points, thanks to braces from Darwin Núñez and Diogo Jota.

All the talk coming into the match on Sunday was of Liverpool’s absentees and how they’d have to cope without Trent Alexander-Arnold and Mohamed Salah, among others, but the team managed this tricky trip to in-form Bournemouth brilliantly with four second-half goals.

Pressure? What pressure. Even with Manchester City breathing down their necks, makeshift full-backs and a star cast all missing either on international duty or because of injury, Liverpool showed their title credentials in the way they came through.

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This was no day out on the south coast. Bournemouth were undefeated in their past eight league matches, boasting one of the most prolific strikers in the league in Dominic Solanke, who had six goals from six games. Still, Liverpool restricted the hosts to one clear-cut chance and bypassed the impressive Bournemouth press with a series of pinpoint cross-field balls and by winning the small 50-50s when they mattered.

Núñez and Jota will get the headlines but this was a collective effort. From the brilliant manner in which Alexis Mac Allister dictated the tempo in the middle of the pitch, the outstanding performance debutant right-back Conor Bradley put in, and all the rest of their teammates, this was an exercise in control. Virgil van Dijk completely marked Solanke out of the game and nullified one of the league’s most lethal finishers.

Bournemouth threw everything at Liverpool in the first half with their high press causing Liverpool the odd nervous moment, and had the best chance of the half with Ryan Christie unable to convert at the near post a minute before the break. Liverpool’s efforts were restricted to long-range shots in the first half, but at the break Klopp switched Núñez to the left wing, played Jota through the middle (just like they did in the FA Cup match at Arsenal) and from there they dominated the match.

Núñez’s physicality caused Bournemouth all sorts of trouble. He has been at times a bemusing player to watch, someone who misses chances he should take and then strokes home occasional wonder goals he has no right to score. After one mishit in the first half, the Bournemouth fans serenaded him with a version of “you’re just a s–t Andy Carroll,” but Núñez was unbowed and unflustered, and when he had his first real sniff of a chance he converted it. It was a brilliant goal in the 49th minute.

Joe Gomez’s looping crossfield kick found Curtis Jones and with Bournemouth’s defence disoriented, his pass found Jota in space, who put in Núñez, and his first-time finish capped a wonderful move. He scored his second late in the match, three minutes into injury time, converting an outstanding Gomez cross at the far post to bring up Liverpool’s fourth. Núñez’s double sandwiched Jota’s brace. He took both brilliantly, firing the first through Neto’s near post after 70 minutes and the second into the far corner after 79 minutes. With that, Bournemouth’s hopes were extinguished.

There were question marks over Liverpool coming into this over how they’d cope — the list of absentees was such that 24-year-old Cody Gakpo was the oldest outfield player on their bench. But the versatility and adaptability of the squad has seen them cope brilliantly. Gomez at left-back had a tough first few minutes against Marcus Tavernier but adjusted and was dominant from there, while Bradley was superb on the opposite flank, having featured for Liverpool sporadically in the cups this season but not yet in the top flight. The constant movement and positional switches of the front three must be a nightmare to play against while Harvey Elliott’s puppy-like energy complements the calmness of both Jones and Mac Allister in midfield.

Klopp has continued that praise towards the Argentine as such a vital player in midfield. “Absolutely exceptional performance,” Klopp said in his post-game news conference. I’m so happy for us but for him as well. He’s a really good footballer and defensively did a job and offensively he’s super important player for us. He’s calm on the ball and the good things in the first half were him.”

The good news for Liverpool fans is that Alexander-Arnold should be back by the end of the month, Robertson is returning to full training soon and Dominik Szoboszlai’s hamstring injury is progressing well. But in the meantime, those out on the pitch are keeping the ship on track. This victory was the first challenge of what could be a key fortnight for Liverpool with their second leg in the Carabao Cup semifinal at Fulham on Wednesday, their fourth round FA Cup match against Norwich City on Sunday, and then matches against Chelsea at Anfield and Arsenal at the Emirates.

All eyes will be on Salah however, as Klopp in his post-match conference that he will continue his rehab in Liverpool following an injury to the Egypt star at the Africa Cup of Nations and will only mostly likely go back to the tournament if his country makes the final.

“We should start the games better but it’s about 98 minutes, it’s about winning the games in the end,” said Klopp. As long as you stay in the game, and today step by step we found a way and we won.”

Their squad will be stretched and Klopp will need to manage it carefully. But even without their absent superstars, when it mattered, they were composed and got the job done with Núñez and Jota’s goals an exercise in composure in the face of immense pressure. At the full-time whistle, the away fans chanted “Liverpool, top of the league” and those who have eyes on the title will have taken notice of this performance.

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