The expression on Jürgen Klopp’s face said it all. A testing 24 hours for Liverpool, dominated by Philippe Coutinho’s emailed transfer request, ended with the sort of injury-time equaliser that drives managers insane. Liverpool, having fought back from 2-1 down to lead 3-2, were on course to open the new season with a victory that would have brought some respite on the back of the Coutinho saga. Instead Klopp could only watch on with a mixture of incredulity and anger as Miguel Britos, looking suspiciously offside, bundled home from a corner.
It was the second time that Watford scored from a set piece – Liverpool’s achilles heel last season – and raised familiar questions about the need for a commanding figure in central defence. At the other end of the pitch Liverpool looked menacing once they got their act together in the second half, scoring two goals in as many minutes. Roberto Firmino got the first via the penalty spot to haul Liverpool level and promptly set up the second for Mohamed Salah, the club-record signing from Roma.
Liverpool were dominant in that period and had enough chances to put the game to bed, yet they never looked comfortable at the back throughout, especially in the first half. Stefano Okaka headed home from a corner to give Watford an early lead and Abdoulaye Doucouré later restored Watford’s advantage after Sadio Mané had equalised for Liverpool with a superb goal.
The visitors could hardly have got off to a worse start. They were behind after only eight minutes, conceding the sort of goal that suggested nothing has changed when it comes to their vulnerability when defending dead-ball situations. José Holebas delivered an inswinging corner from the right and the shortcomings of Liverpool’s zonal marking system were brutally exposed when Okaka directed a free header beyond Simon Mignolet, with Dejan Lovren caught in no man’s land and Firmino also guilty of allowing the Watford striker to drift past him too easily.
Okaka, who is built like a heavyweight boxer, caused Liverpool no end of problems in the first half with his physical presence in front of a Watford midfield that snapped into tackles and denied Klopp’s team the time and space to impose themselves. It was the Italian’s sinuous run and deflected shot that led to the corner that he scored from and he nearly had a second only for Mignolet, diving at his feet, to get to the ball first and flick it away.
Liverpool looked horribly disjointed in the early stages, yet the visitors conjured a wonderful goal out of nothing just before the half-hour mark to bring them level. Alberto Moreno, who was preferred to James Milner at left-back and given his first Premier League start for 10 months, swapped passes with Mané on the edge of the Watford area before sliding a low ball into the feet of Emre Can. Mané ran in behind, adroitly stepping over the ball before accepting Can’s first-time lay off and opening up his body to curl a splendid shot into the far corner.
It was a moment of brilliance that should have had a calming effect on Liverpool. Instead Mignolet was picking the ball out of the net again only 161 seconds later after more calamitous Liverpool defending. Tom Cleverley got away from Jordan Henderson in the inside-right channel and delivered a low centre that pinballed between Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joël Matip, leaving Doucouré with the simple task of sweeping home from six yards out.
Klopp looked exasperated. Even the most routine tasks were proving beyond his players as Mignolet punted a free-kick straight out for a throw-in. Yet for all their shortcomings – and there were plenty – Liverpool could easily have gone in level at the break. Salah should have done better when he capitalised on a mistake from Holebas only to fire over, and Mané’s twisting header in first-half injury time was inches away from creeping in the corner.
The pattern of the game changed after the restart as Liverpool took control, attacked with much more conviction and got their reward. Salah, racing on to Firmino’s pass but running away from goal, was brought down by Heurelho Gomes and although the Watford goalkeeper complained bitterly when Anthony Taylor pointed to the spot, it was the right decision from the referee. Firmino, sending Gomes the wrong way, dispatched his kick with the minimum of fuss.
Two minutes later Liverpool had the lead. Lovren’s long pass released Firmino behind a static Watford defence, the Brazilian brought the ball down neatly with one touch and lifted it over the advancing Gomes with his second. Scampering towards goal, Salah was perfectly placed to nudge the ball over the line. The momentum was now firmly with Liverpool as Moreno and Lovren drew fine saves from Gomes in between Matip heading against the bar. Those chances carried even greater significance when Britos – after Mignolet had saved from the substitute Richarlison – snatched that equaliser at the death.