A mini-crisis. A title wobble. Cataclysmic shift in momentum. All possibilities as Liverpool travelled down to Brighton on Saturday afternoon.
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Wolverhampton defeated Liverpool in a night of few chances at the Molineux as Jurgen Klopp’s side were made to pay for a disheveled performance.
Ruben Neves burst the Liverpool net less than five minutes after a Divock Origi leveller, to send Wolves through to the fourth round of the FA Cup.
Nuno Espirito Santo got his reward for fielding a full-strength side, as Wolves comfortably held off the reds.
Jurgen Klopp made nine changes to the side who suffered defeat at Manchester City, with a tenth being forced just two minutes in after a Dejan Lovren hamstring injury. Enter Ki-Jana Hoever, Liverpool’s youngest ever FA Cup player at 16 years and 354 days. The young Dutchman impressed, showing composure well beyond his years.
Wolves were no doubt encouraged by the much changed Liverpool line up and the early omission of the experienced Lovren, however failed to pressurise Liverpool in the openings.
Despite half chances within the opening ten minutes, both sides struggled for rhythm in an almost anonymous first 30 minutes.
The game’s first shot on target arose in the 34th minute when Jonny lofted the ball into the gloves of Simon Mignolet from the right channel. This seemingly summing up what had been a rather drab first half.
Four minutes later, James Milner’s inability to control a straight forward pass put an end to the stalemate at the Molineux. Almost tripping over his feet, the Englishmen gave possession away cheaply, allowing Diego Jota to find a rampaging Raul Jimenez.
The Mexican burst away with the ball from halfway, before stroking Wolves ahead with a composed finish to Mignolet’s right.
Central to Liverpool’s problems was a lack of movement from those forward of the midfield, Sturridge and Origi in particular. Thereby, one could not pin the goal solely on Milner’s mistake.
As the second half began Wolves seemed content to sit and play on the counter, urging Liverpool to find a previously unfound creative spark.
They found an answer through their derby hero just five minutes after the restart. No stranger to an important goal, Divock Origi rattled home a fierce strike to level the scores at 1-1. With very little backlight, the Belgian pounced on a loose ball, shifted onto his left and gave Liverpool a lifeline out of nothing.
Less than five minutes after being pegged back, Wolves’ Portuguese jewel blasted in the go-ahead goal from 31 yards.
A goal worthy to win any game, Ruben Neves picked up the ball nonchalantly and launched a venomous, dipping effort past an off balance Mignolet.
Take nothing away from the strike, but this was yet another sign of Liverpool’s sluggishness in the Midlands. Neves has scored eight of his nine Wolves goals from outside the area and was allowed the freedom of the West Midlands to wind up.
Questions could also be asked of reserve keeper Simon Mignolet’s positioning.
In the 68th minute Liverpool looked to Xherdan Shaqiri from the dead ball. From over 30 yards out Shaqiri swept an incredible strike, bound for the top corner.
Tellingly, it cannoned off the post and out into touch, with the referee awarding a goal kick. Replays showed that John Ruddy got a fingertip to the ball deflecting it onto the post. Undoubtedly one of the saves of the season to keep out the Swiss.
As Liverpool struggled to gain a foothold back in the game, Klopp turned to his tried and tested. Salah and Firmino coming on to inspire those in Red, and they almost did.
Seven minutes from time after some brilliant play from Hoever, Salah was set free down the right before shooting on his left. The deflection looked goal bound, only for Ryan Bennett to clear.
From then on, Liverpool huffed and puffed before referee Paul Tierney put the reds out of their misery.
Klopp brushed off the bruising defeat, suggesting “if we would win the FA Cup people would still say ‘but you didn’t win the Premier League for 425 years”. The German tactician no doubt had this in mind as his side travelled south.
Liverpool have bigger fish to fry, although this early exit will only fuel the critics. Liverpool indeed choosing to live or die by the Premier League sword.
Whereas for Wolves, Nuno was thrilled with the performance, highlighting the importance of the FA Cup to his promoted side. “It means a lot because it’s a challenge, it’s a trophy, and when the next game comes we’ll approach it in the same way.”
Reward for Wolves is a fourth round FA Cup tie away to lowly Shrewsbury or Stoke.