Liverpool 2 Leicester 0
Liverpool may be in distant pursuit of Manchester City but the chase goes on, thanks to a player whose chances of overhauling the leader in the scoring stakes may be equally remote. Mohamed Salah could go to Africa for a month and retain a sizeable advantage in the race for the Golden Boot but as he made his comeback in a cameo, Diogo Jota struck twice to ensure Brendan Rodgers’ return to Anfield was a less happy affair. This was not Leicester’s worst result of the week but the manner of Jota’s goals underlined City’s defensive deficiencies and, but for Kasper Schmeichel’s heroics, it might have been a thrashing.
Faced with a choice of introducing the new or turning back to the familiar, Jürgen Klopp opted to give Luis Díaz a full debut. The returning Salah was a substitute, perhaps more tired and trusted than tried and trusted after playing extra-time in four matches with Egypt. Klopp nearly got immediate vindication: but for a well-judged intervention from Daniel Amartey, Díaz might have struck in the first minute. The Colombian nevertheless looked at home straight away. A thrillingly direct dribbler who seems to have an extra gear looks a natural Klopp player.
Rodgers had made swingeing changes to the side embarrassed by Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup. Youri Tielemans, the captain on Sunday, was benched, along with Harvey Barnes and Caglar Soyuncu. Rodgers reunited the midfielders Wilfred Ndidi and Amartey at the heart of his defence. Just after Christmas, they became the only centre-back duo to prevent Liverpool from scoring in the Premier League but hopes of a sequel only lasted half an hour.
But counterattacking menace brought Leicester their December win and almost led courtesy of a similar move. James Maddison latched on to Trent Alexander-Arnold’s loose pass, played a one-two with Ademola Lookman and advanced to unleash a rising shot that Alisson tipped over the bar.
That apart, Leicester were content to soak up pressure. Klopp had predicted Rodgers would reprise his tactic of using a diamond midfield. He did not, settling instead for two banks of four. Liverpool’s attempt to break them down encompassed a particularly courageous effort from Andy Robertson who, in trying to convert Alexander-Arnold’s cross, instead collided with the post.
Such bravery was scarcely necessary. The breakthrough came in familiar fashion for both sides. Liverpool had already scored the most goals from set-pieces. Leicester joined Crystal Palace at the top of the table for dead-ball concessions when Alexander-Arnold whipped a corner in, Ndidi left Virgil van Dijk completely unmarked and, while Schmeichel did brilliantly to save his header, Jota swept in the rebound.
A second almost arrived in rather more spectacular fashion. With Schmeichel grounded after punching Robertson’s cross away, Thiago Alcãntara marked his first start for seven weeks with an audacious overhead kick from 18 yards. It bounced narrowly wide.
An ever busier Schmeichel was required to stop two efforts from Roberto Firmino before the interval and one from Jota straight after, the Portuguese gliding clear to aim a shot for the far corner, plus parrying a deflected cross from Robertson. The Leicester captain had made a string of saves when Liverpool lost at the King Power Stadium and was in similarly defiant mood in the rematch. Amartey joined in the resistance, turning Díaz’s drive past the post.
The decibel level for Liverpool’s series of shots, however, was rather lower than when Salah was brought on for a first Anfield appearance of 2022. With the Afcon winner Sadio Mané unavailable — Klopp reported he was still sleeping — the majority present could at least enjoy the fact the losing finalist had returned to Anfield sooner. Rodgers also rolled the dice, sending for Tielemans and Kelechi Iheanacho, though retaining his safety-first shape.
Salah set about carrying on where he left off before he left for Cameroon by launching an assault on the Leicester goal. He could have had a hat-trick inside five minutes. First he wriggled away from two defenders for a shot from an acute angle that Schmeichel blocked. When he fooled Ndidi with a cute dummy and sprinted clear from the centre circle, the overworked goalkeeper read an attempt to dink a shot over him. Then a curler thudded against the bar. Schmeichel then denied Díaz a first Liverpool goal with a brilliant stop when Salah released his new team-mate. Instead, Jota belatedly sealed victory after Leicester twice gave the ball away and Joël Matip picked him out. Now Liverpool are only nine points behind the other City.