Liverpool title hopes shatter after Hull City’s Oumar Niasse seals shock win
This article titled “Liverpool title hopes shatter after Hull City’s Oumar Niasse seals shock win” was written by Andy Hunter at the KCom Stadium, for The Observer on Saturday 4th February 2017 17.15 UTC
Jürgen Klopp suspected the worst was over after Liverpool’s midweek display against a Chelsea team cruising towards the title. He was wrong. Great first half, dreadful second: Liverpool are threatening to take the template for their entire Premier League campaign from last season’s Europa League final.
It is one win in 10 matches for Klopp’s team after Hull City, revitalised by astute management and January recruits, deepened the worry lines on the Liverpool manager and, in the process, improved what were once slim chances of avoiding relegation. Marco Silva has taken seven points from his four Premier League games and new signings Alfred N’Diaye, Andrea Ranocchia, Kamil Grosicki and Oumar Niasse all influenced a fourth consecutive home victory at the KCom Stadium. Midfielder N’Diaye opened the scoring as Liverpool faulted at a set-piece. The visitors’ other recurring flaw, defending against a counterattack, also featured, as Niasse broke clear to wrap up victory late on. It was the first time the Senegal striker has made Evertonians happy since his £13.5m move to Goodison Park 13 months ago.
“When I first arrived the atmosphere was not the best,” said Silva. “The squad was in the last position in the table and many people did not believe. The first match I don’t see our supporters in our stadium. Today, I saw them everywhere, and a fantastic atmosphere. If I believe, I want my players, my supporters, to believe as well. If I believed on the first day then why I don’t believe now? But the truth is we only won three points today, nothing more.”
But this was not merely three points dropped by Liverpool. Klopp was deflated instead of angry after the final whistle, searching for answers to a performance that will trouble him more than any other since the turn of the year. One of the few he could muster was that Liverpool’s spirits have nose-dived, along with their form, due to Chelsea disappearing over the horizon in the title race. “This week we had a really good performance but we didn’t build on it,” said Klopp. “We have to take all the criticism we receive from everywhere.”
The Liverpool manager was particularly aggrieved at a slow, careless start from players who had delivered the polar opposite against Antonio Conte’s team at Anfield. Hull’s breakthrough was a fitting tribute to a scrappy first half and another entry into the Liverpool catalogue of weak defending at set-pieces. Two careless touches from Emre Can gifted Hull a corner. Poland international Grosicki crossed from the right, Harry Maguire headed into the six-yard area and Simon Mignolet, under pressure from Abel Hernández, could only palm the ball down at the feet of N’Diaye, who made no mistake from close range.
Questions will be rightly asked of an unconvincing intervention from the Liverpool goalkeeper, but Mignolet was not the only player culpable. Hernández and N’Diaye reacted quicker than anyone in red when Maguire won the initial header, and were unmarked as Mignolet attempted to claim possession while Jordan Henderson, Lucas Leiva and Nathaniel Clyne were caught static.
Both the Liverpool and Hull defences had been reorganised late in the day, but neither was seriously examined until N’Diaye’s first goal for his new club. Lucas was drafted in at centre-back by Klopp, with Dejan Lovren absent because of a knee problem, while Silva lost his captain, Michael Dawson, to a calf injury during the warm-up. Italian Ranocchia was summonsed from the bench to make his first start since arriving on loan from Internazionale and was one of three full debutants in the Hull team, alongside Grosicki and the goalscorer. All three made assured starts, although it was the Premier League experience of Tom Huddlestone that shone in the centre of Hull’s performance. His quick-thinking and quicker feet helped Hull turn defence into counterattack throughout the first half, but this was not another of those contests that have seen Liverpool toil against deep-lying opposition of late. The visitors were subdued and aimless until finally upping the tempo and threat levels after the restart.
The second half initially reflected a game between a team with designs on the Champions League and another hoping to avoid the Championship. Klopp’s team restarted brightly, stretching Hull repeatedly and forcing a desperate rearguard action. Yet again, however, an end product was absent.
Sadio Mané forced a fine save from the backpeddling Jakupovic when he rose above Andy Robertson to head Adam Lallana’s cross goalwards. The keeper also made a routine save from Can’s diving header before Coutinho missed Liverpool’s clearest opportunity when James Milner’s effort deflected into his path off Maguire. The Brazil international had time and space at the back post, but sliced his shot so badly that it sailed across goal and out.
Almost inevitably, Klopp’s team were punished on the counterattack. Hull’s second goal stemmed from Mané losing possession under a challenge from Maguire. Referee Lee Mason ignored his appeals for a free-kick and Ranocchia played a first-time clearance over the Liverpool defence for Niasse to chase. The Senegal international sprinted through to beat Mignolet with a cool, low finish and Silva’s rescue mission gathered fresh momentum.
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