When the goal came, at the very end of the first half, it felt so out of place with a game this bad, so at odds with the lack of quality here, that it felt for a second as if Craig Pawson might disallow it for encroachment from another, better match.
But even the very best players in the world rarely score goals like Emre Can’s winner at Vicarage Road. It was a masterpiece of imagination, athleticism and, above all else, audacity. No words can do justice to the act itself but it was an overhead kick, on the run, on the turn, executed roughly five feet above the pitch.
It came from Lucas Leiva, just booked for a laughably bad dive, jogged forward with the ball in the Watford half. Spotting Can’s run, he chipped a forward pass into the box for him to meet. Can did not even chest or head the ball first before meeting it on the pure volley. Heurelho Gomes had no idea what was going on but even if he did he would not have been able to keep the ball out of the top corner of his net. It was, to use an over-used phrase, pure football genius.
There have been other great volleys in the Premier League this season, from Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Olivier Giroud and Andy Carroll. But this was the best of the lot, harder to pull off, less instinctive and more precise. It was the goal of this season, by a distance, and no other event or detail from this 90-minute match is worth getting too worried about.
And while the goal was out of place in a game this bad, it did suit the stakes Liverpool were playing for. Because they needed to win this game, as they eventually did, to pull away from Manchester City and Manchester United, securing their hold on third place. And up against this muscular and unambitious Watford side, they did not look like they were going to break through.
The first 45 minutes of football, before Can’s goal, were awful. There is nothing to be said for them at all. The onus was on Liverpool to open up the game but they struggled to do anything. When Philippe Coutinho collided with Adrian Mariappa he gave himself a dead leg. After trying to limp on Jurgen Klopp eventually had to take him off for Adam Lallana, back on the bench after five weeks out.
But Lallana’s introduction did little to change the game, at least at first. With Can and Lucas Leiva in midfield Liverpool were ponderous, strange as that may sound looking back, and they could not get anything going. Only when Lallana hit a volley out of nowhere onto the crossbar did they come anywhere near scoring.
Towards the end of the first half, Lucas Leiva jogged into the box and threw himself to the floor in the vicinity of Tom Cleverley. It was farcical, he was booked, and it felt like the perfect climax to a dismal 45 minutes of football. What followed, of course, was the polar opposite, a moment of inspiration and skill that means this otherwise-forgettable match will never be forgotten.
There was no way the second half could ever produce anything to match that. Liverpool did at least play with the confidence and authority that comes with being 1-0 up, even if they were struggling to come to terms with how their goal actually came about.
But Klopp’s men did move the fall quicker and even created two regulation chances in open play, which looked like a total impossibility for most of the first half. Twice they got the ball through to Divock Origi, who had been isolated in the first half. But both times he could only hit the ball straight at Gomes.
Watford managed to put some pressure on after that and Simon Mignolet had to make real saves, from Etienne Capoue’s 20-yarder and Isaac Success’ disguised cross. There was plenty of defending to be done and Liverpool looked, in stoppage time, as if they felt they had done their job. So when they failed to clear a long cross into the box, it fell to Watford centre-back Sebastian Prodl and he tried to score a thumping volley. The ball hammered into the crossbar and flew away. The first half had ended with spectacular drama, but the second half would not allowing Liverpool to take another step closer towards Champions League football.
Watford (5-3-2): Gomes; Amrabat (Okaka, 85), Mariappa, Prodl, Britos (Kabasele, 19), Janmaat; Capoue (Success, 73), Doucoure, Cleverley; Niang, Deeney
Liverpool (4-3-3): Mignolet; Clyne, Matip, Lovren, Milner; Wijnaldum, Lucas, Can (Sturridge, 85); Firmino, Origi, Coutinho (Lallana, 13) (Klavan, 86)