By Carl Markham, PA
Liverpool turned up the title race pressure on Manchester City as they went top of the Premier League table for the first time since September with a 2-0 win over Watford.
Diogo Jota’s 20th goal of the season in the first half was followed by a late Fabinho penalty to send a message the short distance up the road to Turf Moor where City were about to kick-off against Burnley.
Trent Alexander-Arnold, watching from the bench, could not have failed to be impressed not necessarily by the first goal – which has become quite commonplace now for Jota – but with the quality of the assist.
𝗗𝗜𝗢𝗚𝗢 𝗝𝗢𝗧𝗔 𝗦𝗖𝗢𝗥𝗘𝗦 𝗛𝗘𝗔𝗗𝗘𝗥𝗦 ⚽👏 pic.twitter.com/bhjoJjDPUZ
— Liverpool FC (@LFC) April 2, 2022
His stand-in Joe Gomez, making only his second Premier League start of the season, produced a cross of which his England team-mate would have been proud, whipped in to the near post in a space between centre-half and right-back.
Jota does not need much of an invitation to get on the end of such gifts, having scored more Premier League headers (seven) than anyone since joining Liverpool in September 2020.
Only team-mate Mohamed Salah (20) has scored more in the top flight than the Portugal international’s 14, which secured a 10th successive home win for only the ninth time in the club’s history.
A 14-point deficit in January had been turned into a two-point advantage ahead of City’s 3pm start, teeing up their tantalising clash at the Etihad next Sunday irrespective of the outcome at Turf Moor.
Manager Jurgen Klopp had called for players and fans to be at their best for a traditionally difficult early Saturday kick-off but it was the visitors who had the better early chances, with Ismaila Sarr volleying over, Cucho Hernandez flicking a header straight at Alisson Becker and Juraj Kucka also being denied one-on-one with the goalkeeper.
But moments after Alisson had closed down the angle to block Kucka’s effort from a counter-attack Liverpool were ahead.
Thiago Alcantara, whose range of passing and clever vision ran the show, and Jordan Henderson combined to pick out Gomez wide on the touchline.
Primarily a centre-back who can play on the right, the 24-year-old, who due to the form of a defence which has conceded just seven Premier League goals at home has been limited to only 15 appearances, picked his spot.
Jota, whose four headers this season is a Premier League high, attacked the gap in between Christian Kabasele and Kiko Femenia and his proficiency from close range meant a 20th goal of the season was a formality.
He almost had a second seven minutes before half-time only for Ben Foster to parry his shot after Andy Robertson’s drive deflected to him in the penalty area.
Gomez proved his first-half effort was no fluke with another superb delivery causing panic in the Watford ranks soon after the restart, with Virgil Van Dijk wastefully heading over a corner as they continued to dominate.
— Watford Football Club (@WatfordFC) April 2, 2022
But the warning they could not sit on their one-goal lead came just before the hour when Sarr and Joao Pedro combined to isolate Joel Matip only for the latter to roll a shot past the post with only Alisson to beat.
Two headed chances for Jota and one, albeit it far more difficult, for Salah went begging as the second goal continued to prove elusive despite their territorial dominance.
But with the game still in the balance with 20 minutes to go Watford manager and former Liverpool boss Roy Hodgson sent on Josh King, Tom Cleverley and Emmanuel Dennis to try to snatch something.
However, Klopp’s side, unbeaten domestically since late December, saw the game home roared on by an excitable Kop whose nerves were eased by Fabinho’s late penalty after referee Stuart Atwell reviewed the pitchside monitor after missing Kucka pulling down Jota.