Liverpool’s march on with comfortable win
Jurgen Klopp kicked off his press conference at Anfield with an apology.
It was the only backwards step Liverpool took all afternoon.
The Reds boss said he had dropped a clanger in the aftermath of the Europa League semi-final triumph over Villarreal when he talked about the club taking 100,000 fans to Basel and that it was “worth going there without a ticket”.
“I spoke like a supporter. I made a mistake. It was not too smart,” he confessed.
Klopp “took back” the invite to ticketless fans to head for Switzerland and said they could instead all be at the party on the streets of the city if everything goes to play against Sevilla at St Jakob-Park on May 18.
Job done. Potential diplomatic incident averted with the manager belatedly singing from the same hymn sheet as his employer.
Despite Klopp’s programme notes describing talk of that titanic showdown as strictly off limits during the Premier League run-in, that trip to Basel was never far from anyone’s thoughts during a routine victory over Watford.
The stalls outside Anfield were flogging their final T-shirts, the Kop sang about their exodus to the final and the teamsheet laid bare that a much more significant test lies ahead.
As supporters anxiously wait to discover whether they land one of the club’s paltry allocation of 10,236 tickets in the ballot for the final, there was nothing here to set pulses racing.
The tempo, the intensity and the noise levels were a world away from the bedlam that accompanied Villarreal’s visit three days earlier.
Klopp succinctly described the atmosphere for Watford’s first visit to Anfield for a decade as “more like afternoon tea”.
Yet to their credit a much-changed Liverpool line-up comfortably wrapped up the points courtesy of goals from Joe Allen and substitute Roberto Firmino.
Simon Mignolet, Alberto Moreno and Philippe Coutinho were the only players retained following the Reds’ heroics on Thursday night but, unlike at Swansea a week earlier, this time the understudies delivered.
Allen is among those battling to prove to Klopp he deserves to start in Basel and here he did his chances no harm at all.
The Wales international’s stock has risen sharply in recent months with the most consistent run of form of his Reds career.
Klopp talked about how in the pre-match meeting he had asked those in the starting line-up to “play Joe Allen football” and admitted “the game would have been completely different” without him.
Allen provided the injection of energy and class required for Liverpool to control the middle of the park.
Kevin Stewart, who struggled against Swansea a week earlier, looked so much more assured with the experienced £15million midfielder alongside him.
The shower of compliments for Allen has yet to lead to Liverpool opening talks over a new contract. He is close to entering the final 12 months of his current deal but the case for him being part of Klopp’s long-term plans is strengthening by the week.
After Allen had slotted home his third goal of the season, it was left to Firmino to kill off the Hornets.
The Brazilian attacker’s impact was emphatic after Klopp brought him on for the final half-hour.
The scale of Firmino’s improvement over the course of his first season in English football has been remarkable.
Kopites were wondering whether Liverpool had kept that £29million receipt after a run of lifeless displays in the autumn.
But Klopp has got the best out of him and now he looks worth every penny. Firmino was Liverpool’s outstanding performer against Villarreal and he starred again here.
Having taken him 14 appearances to open his account, he boasts 11 goals in 47 games. Firmino delved into his box of tricks and had Anfield purring after a trademark pirouette late on.
Victory didn’t lift Liverpool up from eighth spot but it did ensure they could still finish as high as fifth if they sign off their domestic campaign by beating Chelsea and West Brom.
With every place worth an extra £1.2m in prize money, it’s no wonder than Klopp has vowed to recall most of his big guns for the 50th game of his reign against the Londoners at Anfield on Wednesday night. There will be no resting on laurels ahead of the final.
Prior to Allen’s clinical finish nine minutes before the break, this was classic end of season fayre at a sun-kissed Anfield.
Watford had their moments as they sat deep and then countered at pace through the twin threat of Odion Ighalo and captain Troy Deeney.
At Vicarage Road back in December that duo bullied the Reds into submission.
The sight of Ighalo will have been enough for Martin Skrtel to break into a cold sweat considering what he did to him last time they met. The Slovakian defender’s pride as well as his hamstring took a pounding.
However, this time Skrtel stood tall and dealt with the Nigerian frontman admirably.
When Ighalo burst in behind the Reds’ backline, Skrtel was always alert to the danger and he also made a crucial block to deny Almen Abdi.
Teenager Sheyi Ojo caught the eye once again down the right flank. One incisive pass from him found Coutinho, whose strike was deflected just past the post.
It was a mixed afternoon for Christian Benteke on his first start for three months.
At times the £32.5m frontman looked sluggish – caught on his heels and off the pace. But on other occasions he linked play expertly and Benteke helped the Reds break the deadlock 10 minutes before the break.
A free-kick was played short to Coutinho, whose clipped delivery picked out Benteke. Allen latched on to the nod down and slotted past Heurelho Gomes.
The Belgium international laid on another glorious chance early in the second half but Coutinho couldn’t provide the finish.
Briefly, Watford rallied and it took a stunning fingertip save from Mignolet to thwart Ighalo.
With 14 minutes to go the points were wrapped up. The visitors backed off, inviting Firmino to shoot and his drive from the edge of the box somehow eluded Gomes and nestled in the net.
Liverpool should have had more but both Benteke and Jordon Ibe were wasteful.
Unbeaten in 11 games at home stretching back to January, Anfield is becoming a fortress again. But it’s a battle on Swiss turf which will end up defining this campaign.
Man of the Match: Joe Allen. Capped another impressive midfield display with the goal which brought the contest to life.