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(BBC SPORT) Liverpool beat struggling Watford to complete a remarkable, albeit short, return to the top of the Premier League.
The Reds trailed Manchester City by 14 points on 15 January, but a 10th straight league win in the early kick-off at a raucous Anfield took them above Pep Guardiola’s side, whom they meet on 10 April.
However, City won 2-0 at struggling Burnley later on Saturday to restore their one-point lead with eight games left. Diogo Jota’s 20th club goal of the season and his third in as many appearances in a Liverpool shirt – 34 seconds after Alisson made a huge save to deny Juraj Kucka – helped seal a tense win.
Portugal forward Jota jumped between two Watford defenders to meet a cross and head past Ben Foster as Joe Gomez marked only his second league start of the season with an assist.
Fabinho’s late penalty – after Kucka’s rugby-style challenge on Jota – secured the points. Despite sealing a potentially significant win, Liverpool were not at their fluent best. Joao Pedro wasted a glorious chance to equalise in the second half as Watford remain third from bottom, three points from safety.
Tension replaced by relief
Liverpool returned to the top of the table – albeit for a couple of hours – for the first time since early December, and at the start of the final push towards what would be a historic quadruple. They face Benfica in the quarter-finals of the Champions League in Portugal on Tuesday before going to City in what many are billing as the game that ould decide the title.
Liverpool, already Carabao Cup winners, started the penultimate month of the campaign – in which they also face City at Wembley in the FA Cup semi-finals – with a hard-earned win in a game where the result was more important than the performance. Alisson had already denied Cucho Hernandez when he spread himself to block Kucka, before Jota pounced moments later.
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Unlike team-mate Mohamed Salah, Jota will be going to the World Cup later this year after helping Portugal beat North Macedonia in a play-off in midweek. While a tired looking Salah, who was pelted with missiles and targeted by green laser pointers as Egypt missed out on the World Cup to Senegal on Tuesday, was replaced after 69 minutes, Jota could have had a hat-trick.
Denied a second goal by Foster before half-time, Jota headed another chance over the bar in front of the Kop. Tension was replaced by relief when Fabinho’s 89th-minute penalty – awarded after referee Stuart Attwell watched a replay on the pitchside monitor – ensured Liverpool got the job done.
Watford must be more clinical
Despite a 20th league defeat of the season, Watford will take some comfort that Liverpool were unable to relax until Fabinho struck. However, the Hornets know they have to be more clinical in their final eight games if they are to stand any chance of staying up.
While Kucka was denied by a fine save, Pedro should have equalised in the second half after Watford beat Liverpool’s offside trap.
Roy Hodgson’s side face a difficult end-of-season run-in which includes matches at City and Chelsea. Although they host Leeds on 9 April and Brentford on 16 April, they have picked up only seven points from a possible 42 at Vicarage Road this season.