Emre Can strikes at Watford to strengthen Liverpool hold on top four

Dominic Fifield at Vicarage Road
Emre Can scores Liverpool’s goal with an overhead kick just before half-time which was enough to beat Watford. Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

Emre Can was still smiling in disbelief as he attempted to piece together the moment which had thrust hopes of reaching the Champions League firmly back into Liverpool’s hands. “I saw the space and I ran in behind,” he said, presumably referring to the area vacated by Adrian Mariappa who had been drawn forward sensing the true threat lay with Roberto Firmino. “My first thought was that I wanted to head it. Then I didn’t think too much.” Instinct took over in the airborne split-second which followed and an ugly contest was transformed.

Can will never score a better goal than the scissor-kick which claimed the spoils in this corner of Hertfordshire. His leap, almost balletic in its execution, was timed perfectly to meet Lucas Leiva’s pass. He flung himself diagonally towards the penalty spot.

Neither Nordin Amrabat nor Sebastian Prödl was in any kind of position to repel the centre but the German’s connection still needed to be sweet and true to find the corner. Heurelho Gomes, never anticipating such improvised brilliance, was too shocked to move but he would not have reached the ball anyway. “I have never scored a goal like that,” said a grinning Can. “Maybe when I was younger … no, that is the best I have ever scored.”

The Premier League may not have seen a better one this season, for all the eye-catching scorpion kicks and overheads which children have been attempting to mimic with glee in parks for months. They have new inspiration for the summer. That the scorer was a player who has been blunted at times by calf trouble this season, and whose contribution can be eclipsed by the more lavish forward thinkers in Liverpool’s ranks added to the drama.

Can will go into the final 12 months of his contract at Anfield in July with talks over a new deal at an impasse and the player himself having suggested he would prefer to be playing a deeper-lying role in the side. The real issue may be financial, though much more of this and he may be likelier to secure his wage demands than a change of position.

Liverpool departed this arena with a place in next season’s Champions League still in their own hands. The damage done by that home defeat by Crystal Palace eight days previously does not feel quite so severe in the aftermath of this result and the slips endured by both Manchester clubs over the weekend, with Can’s winner shifting Jürgen Klopp’s team four points clear of fifth-placed United. Win their last three games, against Southampton, West Ham and Middlesbrough, and they cannot be ousted from the top four. Those contests will not be straightforward, as Klopp was keen to point out, but rather that than a game of catch-up.

The visitors’ manager had actually made a beeline straight for Prödl, rather than Can, at the final whistle with nervous tension having long set in. He had been aghast seconds earlier when Tom Cleverley’s punt, and Stefan Okaka’s flick, had forced the loose ball on to the far post where the centre-half lurked to belt a shot on to the crossbar with Liverpool’s lives flashing before their eyes. It was actually the hosts’ best opportunity of a night of frustration but it ensured the overriding sensation at the final whistle was one of intense relief in the away dugout.

Klopp offered Prödl consolation through a smile before making his way into the corner towards the visiting support where all his frustration, pent up from the defeat by Palace, was released as he punched the air in celebration.

His team merited this, for all Watford’s exasperation at a flag-happy assistant referee. Liverpool had overcome the early loss of Philippe Coutinho to a dead leg, sustained in a fourth-minute challenge with Mariappa, to find some rhythm amid the huff and puff with Adam Lallana restored to their ranks. The England midfielder had had only “two proper sessions and a recovery session”, according to his manager, after five weeks out with thigh trouble, and yet his presence provided a level of reassurance.

It had been Lallana who planted a volley from Gomes’s punch four minutes from the interval which looped back over the goalkeeper and the muddle of bodies in the box to strike the woodwork. That superb effort would be trumped in what time remained before the break.

They were more assured once ahead, carrying a threat through Divock Origi and, late on, Daniel Sturridge with Gomes saving well from both, and they appeared to be repelling Watford with relative ease. M’Baye Niang’s bright start fizzled out, Troy Deeney was outnumbered and nullified, Simon Mignolet saved smartly from Daryl Janmaat, and Étienne Capoue – such a regular source of goals earlier in the campaign – saw his best effort tipped over the bar. Walter Mazzarri ended up slapping the side of his dugout at his team’s inability to make proper inroads.

There is a level of grumbling dissatisfaction at this club even after a season where they have rarely been embroiled in a relegation scrap. Watford’s owners may sense the time is approaching for further managerial upheaval. “But we hardly gave them anything, really,” said the Italian. “They just scored a great goal. The kind only champions score.”

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