Welcome back Leeds. On the evidence of their first top flight appearance for 5964 days the Premier League is in for a treat from Marcelo Bielsa’s side this season, but they left Anfield cursing a self-inflicted failure to take a point from an enthralling duel with Liverpool.
The visitors were on course for a well-earned draw against the Premier League champions when their £30m record signing, Rodrigo, foolishly fouled fellow substitute Fabinho to gift Jürgen Klopp’s side an 88th minute penalty. Mohamed Salah, for the second time in the game, made no mistake from the spot and Liverpool were up and running. But only just. Salah became the first Liverpool player to score on the opening day for four consecutive seasons but this was a gruelling return against a vibrant Leeds team.
A little over seven weeks since picking up the Premier League trophy on the Kop Jordan Henderson returned from a knee injury to lead Liverpool out for the start of their title defence. As on the night of Liverpool’s coronation, and certainly to a greater extent than during the restart period, the absence of a crowd from the opening day at Anfield and from one of the grand fixtures of English football was sorely felt. This place would have been a cauldron for a meeting of last season’s Premier League and Championship champions. The two of them offered compensation in the form of a wildly open and entertaining first half.
Klopp had warned the newcomers they were in for a more intense encounter than anything they experienced last season. Those words were also aimed at anyone who doubted his team’s ability to maintain their relentless approach for a third successive league campaign.
Liverpool accepted the challenge immediately. Leeds barely touched the ball in the opening exchanges, a situation they are not accustomed to under Bielsa, and were behind within four minutes of their return to the big time. Controversially so too, as the handball for which referee Michael Oliver immediately awarded a penalty could have been overturned under the new interpretation of the rule. There was no question that Robin Koch’s arm was outside the ’body line’ when Salah’s shot struck the £12.9m summer signing on his right arm. But the ball deflected up onto the arm off the defender’s thigh. Only if the deflection makes no difference to the ball touching the hand/arm should a penalty be given this season. Oliver and a brief VAR check decided it had not, and Salah slammed the resulting spot-kick down the middle of Illan Meslier’s goal.
The reaction of Bielsa’s players was hugely impressive. Uninhibited, confident and adventurous, Leeds took the game to Liverpool after falling behind. Helder Costa had a cool finish rightly disallowed for offside but the visitors were quickly back on level terms thanks to an excellent finish from Jack Harrison. Not that Klopp will have seen it that way, with Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joe Gomez both weak in their defensive duties. Kalvin Phillips, fresh from making his England debut in Denmark this week, collected the ball from his goalkeeper and sprayed a delightful pass out to Harrison on the left. The winger cut inside Liverpool’s right-back and central defender easily before beating Alisson with a clinical shot from the edge of the area.
The entertainment had only just begun. Sadio Mané executed a brilliant chip over Meslier from 35 yards only for another offside, this time against Andy Robertson, to cancel out the effort. Moments later Robertson swept a corner from the left into the heart of the Leeds area and Virgil van Dijk, having lost his marker, Koch, in the melee, restored the champions’ advantage with a thumping header past Meslier.
Leeds came back again. Patrick Bamford squandered a fine chance to equaliser when played through by the impressive Luke Ayling, opting to round Alisson instead of chipping first time only to lose the initiative. But he was gifted opportunity to make amends by an uncharacteristic error from Van Dijk who, attempting to flick Stuart Dallas’ long ball out to his left-back, succeeded in finding Bamford instead. The striker had clearly learned from his previous miss and lifted a first time finish over the exposed Liverpool goalkeeper.
Liverpool almost had a third when Pascal Struijk diverted a Robertson cross towards his own goal. The back-peddling Meslier saved his defender with a fine save. But the third arrived moments after Bamford’s equaliser whenStruijk headed a Robertson free-kick back into the danger zone of his penalty area instead of out for a corner. Salah had backed off and, having collected the defender’s header in space, drove an unstoppable shot into Meslier’s top left hand corner.
Liverpool exerted more control in the second half and created several opportunities to punish a stretched and at times chaotic visiting defence. Meslier saved well from Georginio Wijnaldum when Roberto Firmino found the midfielder unmarked at the back post, Van Dijk headed over from an Alexander-Arnold corner and Mané was badly off target when released into space by the Brazilian centre-forward. Their profligacy was duly punished.
Leeds thought they had levelled again when Alexander-Arnold headed into his own net attempting to clear Harrison’s lob over Alisson. Harrison was offside when released through on goal, however, although there was no disputing the merit or quality of the third when it came. Liverpool lost possession from a throw-in by Alexander-Arnold and Leeds pounced superbly. Mateusz Klich swept play out to Costa on the right and darted into the area where the return pass arrived perfectly. Klich’s control was pristine, his finish even better, and Alisson had no chance against the midfielder’s volley.