WOLVERHAMPTON, England — It seemed to have all the ingredients for an upset.
A bitingly cold night, mist swirling in the floodlights. An atmospheric old stadium, packed to the rafters, the home fans in riotous good voice from first minute to last. The premature departure of a key player. A first goal conceded in 725 minutes of league football. An opposition forward, Adama Traore, who looked capable of weaving his way to goal single-handedly almost every time he got on the ball.
And still Liverpool won.
When the final whistle sounded on a 2-1 win over Wolverhampton Wanderers on Thursday that Liverpool did not so much pull out of the fire as carry to safety from the 30th floor of a burning building, Roberto Firmino and Georginio Wijnaldum stood bent over with their hands on their knees just inside their own half. After catching their breath, they righted themselves, turned toward each other and shared a tired embrace. Victory tastes so much sweeter when it is this hard earned.
A little way off, Traore stood with his hands on his hips, the ball resting against the tip of his right boot. Liverpool had struggled to take it from him all night and at times in the second half, after he had teed up Raul Jimenez for a 51st-minute equaliser with a classic run and cross from the right, he had threatened to tear the Premier League leaders’ unbeaten run to shreds all on his own.
Instead, Liverpool march on, 16 points clear at the league summit with a game in hand after a 22nd win in 23 games this term and now one of only five teams in the history of the English Football League to have gone 40 consecutive matches without defeat. Another nine games and they will have matched the record of 49 games without defeat that Arsenal set between 2003 and 2004. Another 15 and they will have emulated Arsene Wenger’s “Invincibles” by going an entire season unbeaten.
If Liverpool are not going to lose at Molineux, when Alisson is uncharacteristically floundering beneath high balls and Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez are throwing themselves in front of shot after shot after shot, it is hard to imagine where they will. Given their utter supremacy, the trip to the Etihad Stadium to face Manchester City on April 4 is the only remaining assignment likely to give their supporters any cause for real alarm.
The tactical adjustments that Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp made for the visit to the Black Country reflected his concerns about Wolves’ ability to hurt his team in wide areas, with the visitors defending in a 4-4-2 formation and switching to their trademark 4-3-3 shape when they went forward. If the goal of providing a layer of midfield protection in front of Liverpool’s full-backs in the defensive phase was to limit the influence of Traore, it did not work. The muscle-bound former Middlesbrough winger gave Andy Robertson one of the most unpleasant evenings he will ever have in a red shirt (Klopp said he had been “pretty much unplayable”) and it took the introduction of Fabinho for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain with 20 minutes remaining for the visitors to rediscover a sense of calm.
On a night when grit took priority over gracefulness, nobody exemplified Liverpool’s performance better than skipper Jordan Henderson, who was a central figure in both goals. The England midfielder scored the opener in the eighth minute, driving to the near post to send a header crashing past Rui Patricio from Trent Alexander-Arnold‘s corner, and created the winner with six minutes remaining. After Mohamed Salah ran into traffic on the edge of the Wolves box, Henderson smartly picked out Firmino, who cut inside onto his left foot and lashed in the winner.
The first-half withdrawal of Sadio Mane means that Liverpool’s horizon is not entirely free of clouds. The Senegal forward walked off after feeling something in his hamstring 10 minutes before half-time, and although Klopp said new signing Takumi Minamino had played “exceptionally well” after coming on to make his Premier League debut, an extended absence for Liverpool’s No. 10 would create a significant problem for his manager.
Mane is Liverpool’s joint-top scorer with 15 goals in all competitions this season and only Alexander-Arnold can better his tally of nine assists. Collectively, he, Salah and Firmino have missed only 10 league games since the start of last season and Liverpool are never quite the same when one of their celebrated front three is not on the pitch. With Xherdan Shaqiri still working his way back to fitness after a calf problem, it would leave Minamino and Divock Origi as the most likely candidates to take over from Mane if he is not passed fit for Wednesday’s trip to West Ham United.
That said, you suspect it would take an injury glut of epic proportions for Liverpool’s momentum to be disturbed. As Wolves’ exhausted players can testify, this is a team that simply cannot be discouraged.