Liverpool have overcome numerous obstacles to put themselves within reach of the Premier League title, but a self-imposed hosepipe ban in South Wales on the same afternoon as an impromptu ball boy/girl strike was a new one for Jurgen Klopp as his side chiselled out another pivotal victory.
Cardiff manager Neil Warnock pleaded innocence at the hint of any dirty tricks in an attempt to derail Liverpool’s chase for the top, instead diverting attention to Mohamed Salah’s fall for James Milner's penalty to confirm a 2-0 victory.
It was Warnock’s prerogative to maximise his team’s chances, welcoming Liverpool onto a pitch so dry it could have doubled up as the set of Lawrence of Arabia by full-time.
Slowing the game, forcing Liverpool to playing against the clock to deny early rhythm was also straight out of the Jose Mourinho handbook circa 2014 for spoiling Anfield title bids.
That Klopp’s side still managed to claim the victory needed to return to the Premier League summit is further testimony to their annoyance value to the reigning champions. They won’t go away, keeping their side of the bargain to ensure Manchester City will have to win it rather than bank on the kind of Liverpool implosion that has cost them in the past.
Liverpool’s attention to detail most impressed here.
Klopp predicted Cardiff’s water shortage so ordered staff at the club’s training ground, Melwood, to leave the grass long and turn off the sprinklers for the team’s final preparation.
“We had to convince our groundsmen. They didn’t want to do it because they’re too proud for that. It was against the ethos,” said the Liverpool manager.
“We trained yesterday for one hour and 10 minutes on a bone-dry pitch just to get used to it.
“Dry pitches are dangerous, for players injury-wise. You run and when you stop, it can happen. It’s difficult for the fluency of the game. If you ask footballers what they want, they’d say a wet pitch, let’s go, let’s pass, let’s play football. You can slide better, everything is better. But we were prepared. This time we learned from all of our mistakes in the past.”
Liverpool’s opening goal from Gini Wijnaldum – their 20th from a set-piece this season – also owed much to homework, although Klopp credited his players for their improvisation, deciding at half-time to try an ingenious new routine.
The Dutch midfielder smashed in a volley from Trent Alexander-Arnold’s corner on 58 minutes, Cardiff’s players caught expecting another floated ball to Virgil Van Dijk.
“I like them taking the initiative, it doesn’t happen very often which makes it even better,” said Klopp.
Klopp’s side has collected 88 points now, which is more than any other Liverpool team in the Premier League era. With one more win they will eclipse what many regard the greatest of all Liverpool sides – Kenny Dalglish’s 1987-88 title winners. They won 90 points in a 40 game season.
The next three games will determine if that statistic is extraordinary or a mere triviality if City win all their remaining fixtures to defend their title. Klopp is only interested in the final tally.
“The points total is like a bill. You don’t know what it’s going to be, but when it comes, you pay it,” he said.
“In the end we will see how many points we have and then we get what we get.”
Cardiff sensed they could prey on the high stakes in their survival quest and were left to lament missed opportunities, none better than for centre-half Sean Morrison who squandered a free header on 65 minutes. It was a bad afternoon for the defender, who complained vociferously that Salah hit the ground too easily for the 81st minute penalty. Salah probably did, but only after being wrestled for 30 seconds beforehand.
Until Wijnaldum’s opener, Warnock looked like he was relishing Liverpool being visitors for such a critical afternoon. It made his gameplan straightforward.
Cardiff were all toil and discipline, nibbling at the backs of Liverpool’s front three as they retreated ever deeper for possession.
Liverpool could have made life easier with a couple of early chances, the best falling to Roberto Firmino after the first penetrating passing move. The Brazilian snatched at the shot with Neil Etheridge to beat, the blast yards over. Mane also flicked over the bar from cross range, and Cardiff carried a threat every time Nathaniel Mendez-Laing took on Alexander-Arnold in a sprint. The young full-back was outpaced three times in the first half.
Former Everton striker Oumar Niasse forced Alisson to tip over from close range, but Morrison’s header aside, that was as encouraging as it got in attack for Warnock’s side.
Liverpool were studious and professional once ahead and Jordan Henderson ought to have doubled the lead from close range before James Milner's spot kick settled it.
It feels like a sudden death shoot-out for this Premier League title now. Each time Liverpool and Manchester City step up they know they next miss could be terminal, so it is appropriate Milner’s penalty confirmed the latest three point conversion in the Welsh capital.
City stride up again on Wednesday night still aware one misstep might be decisive.
Gary Neville reveals his devious managerial side
I've done it! We played against Real Madrid in Valencia and we left the grass longer... so it worked! I'm not sure why we didn't do it all the time...
Neil Warnock claims he had no idea about the grass not being watered
I think we've done really well against a team without a weakness I think and they find that one effort and it's a goal. We played when we could, on the front foot, not a walkover, disappointed a couple of things didn't go our way. It's a silly penalty, the last bit of the penalty shout was like a great 9.9 dive.
We've had so many... Morrison's been pulled so often, had his shirt pulled, when you see penalties being given like that.
It would have been nice to put them under pressure because they're such a good team. It would have been interesting to go in 1-0.
I think the groundsman must have thought there was a hosepipe band, if anything I thought it slowed us down. I've no idea I'll have to ask (the groundsman).
More from Klopp
Of course a season like this we have momentum. Having 88 points in the Premier League with opponents like this I mean come on.
He's a key player. We played a proper diamond today because we cannot avoid the long balls, he's our chaser who goes to the goalie, we wanted Bobby in that position, he's naturally smart. You have two 10s, two high wingers, there's so much after the Porto game that is so different that is why I'm so pleased. The full-backs not always high, the six not too static, Naby did a wonderful job always being in between.
We'll see. City will be ready, we will see if United's ready. We played there, we had a draw on a good day. We cannot change it, we play on Friday and we can have influence on that.
More from Klopp
We have to use the squad, that's what we do. Why is UEFA doing this Wednesday, Tuesday? We had it.
I really don't think about that, we play whoever looks good, looks fit for that. Then we have Barcelona, then Newcastle. At Barcelona the pitch is four metres longer than Anfield so there's more space to cover.
We had to develop the space. When I came in we were really wild, but it's how you convince others. The boys look in the dressing room and see quality, we are completely happy with what we have and will do the best to achieve what we can.
Jurgen Klopp's doing his post-match interview
Very difficult. I'm happy with a couple of footballers here, on a dry pitch against a low defending team that's very difficult. We defended it all really well. My favourite goal, we have all these routines, they decided at half time that the space was open and we scored that goal.
We did. We didn't cut the grass at Melwood yesterday and didn't water it, we knew it would happen. It's so different, so we trained one hour and 10 minutes on an already dry pitch. You have to be ready to not be frustrated, you have to be 100 per cent serious, the boys were, we deserve the three points.
James Milner trying hard to turn his interview into a cliche-riddled bore
It was really tough, it was warm, they don't put water on the pitch but we prepared for that, created big chances. Second half we scored the first one and controlled the game.
Did the pitch make it harder?
I don't know. I think even though it was so dry we still created chances, I didn't see there was a problem today but there could be.
We train for it but the ball has to come high! I was so free in the first half I told Trent to play a low ball.
I've got confidence in the boys but it is a bit different when you can't affect it yourself. You have to stay patient, it's easy to play the wrong way.
On the 'Old Man' celebration:
Virge (Van Dijk) gives me plenty of stick for being old so it's one for him really.
Liverpool have now recorded a PL era club record 88 points - their most in a season since gaining 90 points (from 40 games) in 1987-88 pic.twitter.com/jTMb0CIoSM— Sky Sports Statto (@SkySportsStatto) April 21, 2019
Liverpool climb back to top spot with an efficient, relentless, superb performance. They're one of the best teams I've watched in the Premier League, it's incredible we have both Man City and this Liverpool side to enjoy this season. Cardiff hung on and with better luck might have taken a point today but clearly weren't good enough to win it. Liverpool are next level.
90 mins - Cardiff 0 Liverpool 2
- Only Wilfried Zaha (6) has won more Premier League penalties this season than Mo Salah (5).
- No players have assisted more Premier League goals for Liverpool this season than Andrew Robertson (9) and Trent Alexander-Arnold (8)
- Ten of James Milner's last 12 league goals for Liverpool have come from the penalty spot, with nine of those 12 goals also coming away from home.
It was a penalty for me. Can’t really see how you could think otherwise.....but you will, of course.— Gary Lineker (@GaryLineker) April 21, 2019
87 mins - Cardiff 0 Liverpool 2
"You are joking!" says Morrison to the referee after that Salah fall. It's complicated and entirely dependent on your interpretation of it - Morrison shouldn't be all over him but Salah shouldn't tumble like Jenga when he knows it looks like a foul.
85 mins - Cardiff 0 Liverpool 2
If VAR was in play here, the referee would have been able to see it again and make an informed decision. I think it would be a penalty on review. Either way, Liverpool have navigated a difficult game here. I'm really looking forward to the post-match interviews which go "Yeh really tough game today, they're a good side, made it hard for us, but we fought to the end, great bunch of lads, let's cuddle".
82 mins - Cardiff 0 Liverpool 2
The thing is, it's clumsy by Morrison but the only reason Salah has actually gone down is that he's flung himself to the floor. Morrison must have known that was coming, he had to get his arms off the forward! Like an overly aggressive hug. The thing with Salah is that he wouldn't have been given the penalty if he hadn't gone down, but Morrison might have been better off holding him up to stop the inevitable dive!
Milner secures the win for Liverpool!
81 mins - Cardiff 0 Liverpool 1
Bacuna comes on for Ralls. He's tied some yellow stuff into his hair, which is something else I never learned to do. Cardiff try to sprint away on the counter, Liverpool stop him and get up the other end. Salah has the ball and looks for the penalty... keeps waiting.... Morrison has his arms around him and eventually Salah just slithers to the floor.
PENALTY! It's really soft but is also a penalty.
78 mins - Cardiff 0 Liverpool 1
Here's a photo showing the bizarre Morrison miss from earlier. How do you miss this as a professional footballer? I'd miss it... but he shouldn't. Maybe he'd argue that he'd spell everything correctly first time in a liveblog so this is a silly point.
Cardiff have a corner! A quick pass over the top and they're nearly in on goal but it's dealt with. Liverpool are so dangerous on the counter from Cardiff's set pieces. Mane speeds past and has space to run into, Ralls chases and pulls up with a hamstring injury. Luckily the ball ends up behind for corner.
76 mins - Cardiff 0 Liverpool 1
The medics check him and he seems to pass the follow a finger test but then talks to the staff as they walk off the pitch. I have no idea if whatever he says is related but it looks like they've decided he needs to be taken off for safety and James Milner is now on the pitch in his place.
74 mins - Cardiff 0 Liverpool 1
Fabinho's first involvement is taking a painful knock to the head. He's down receiving treatment from the physios. Fabinho hasn't moved for a little while, he might have been knocked out there. That's not great. And they're doing concussion tests on him now.
72 mins - Cardiff 0 Liverpool 1
Mane uses his strength to hold off defenders by the goal line and Robertson wins a corner. Keita comes off to be replaced by the much taller Fabinho, and I'd image height is a big part of that substitution.
69 mins - Cardiff 0 Liverpool 1
Now Salah has punted a near-post effort over the bar. Hoilett passes back to the goalkeeper... who picks it up. That's a passback... how has he not... oh I see. The replay shows Hoilett used his knee, and that's why I wouldn't and won't ever become a referee.
66 mins - Cardiff 0 Liverpool 1
What a first touch by Camarasa. He's running at full sprint and takes the ball out of the air into his stride, chased into the box. Henderson recovers for a corner.
The cross is curled in with power, beats ALISSON IT MUST BE GOAL! I have no idea how Morrison has missed that. It's an open goal. The ball comes off his back! How is that possible?! Morrison has just missed an open goal header, even though his head was right there to put it in the net.
63 mins - Cardiff 0 Liverpool 1
Cardiff move up the other end of the pitch and Ralls holds the ball before finding a teammate on the edge of the area. The shot is hit left-footed... and Alisson saves!
Liverpool keep the relentless pressure though and carve out another opportunity. The ball is low into the area, HENDERSON MUST SCORE! Over the bar! Huge miss!
Liverpool have another corner again now.
60 mins - Cardiff 0 Liverpool 1
Crikey. Cracking, crisp and crucial strike from Wijnaldum.— Gary Lineker (@GaryLineker) April 21, 2019
Fair play to the goal net at Cardiff. A tough ask but it held it.— Duncan Alexander (@oilysailor) April 21, 2019
LIVERPOOL HAVE THE LEAD!
Alexander-Arnold hits a free-kick low into the area and it's perfect for Wijnaldum to run onto and volley into the back of the net! Brilliant finish, a huge goal for Liverpool!
56 mins - Cardiff 0 Liverpool 0
Cardiff just cannot break out of their own half. It's all Liverpool and they are suffocating the pitch, squeezing it, getting closer. It's forcing shots from long range, which isn't ideal for Klopp. Warnock won't mind how the game looks right now.
54 mins - Cardiff 0 Liverpool 0
Alexander-Arnold slips, Camarasa tries to break away but he runs out of ideas and is tackled by a gang of Liverpool players. That means they can run at a vulnerable defence now but Mane's attempt to twist, turn then aim for the top corner sees the ball sent high and wide for a goal kick.
51 mins - Cardiff 0 Liverpool 0
Liverpool are doing everything right. Plenty of movement, players dropping to free space for someone else to run into, passes being hit with power... but Cardiff are aware of it all.
48 mins - Cardiff 0 Liverpool 0
Cardiff have the ball in the final third early in this half and now it's time for the LONG THROW of Aron Gunnarsson. Nothing comes of it this time but Cardiff stay up, the ball is hooked in and Morrison pops up at the back post! He goes for the header and gets a little tug of the shirt but not enough to warrant a penalty in my neutral eyes.
KICK OFF 2
Cardiff defending really well
Usually when Liverpool have a set piece or the centre-backs head up the pitch for some reason, once the ball is cleared the defending team rushes forward to make sure they catch Liverpool offside. Cardiff aren't doing this. They know there's real danger from second balls, specifically when someone like Andy Robertson gets the ball - he usually stays back to defend set pieces - because the chipped diagonal has worked so often this season for Liverpool.
Cardiff are winning headers and second balls but holding their positions really well to block space for passes and runs. They could get something from this game.
Liverpool are playing well, Cardiff are defending brilliantly. It feels like Klopp's team will get another couple of chances to score but it's dead tight.
45 mins - Cardiff 0 Liverpool 0
Hoilett is played in on the right after some excellent passing from Cardiff but Van Dijk comes over and he just waits to guarantee a corner. Alisson punches that away, Cardiff win the ball, kick it in and NIASSE SWINGS AT THE BALL! WHAT A SAVE! From 10 yards the shot is parried over the bar - any power in that and it was a goal!
And now Liverpool break! They have men over, it's so fast and Salah beats two players to keep it going! Henderson's pass takes A-A too wide and his cross is headed away.
42 mins - Cardiff 0 Liverpool 0
Cardiff just want to get this to half-time. They've done so well to limit chances and block the spaces, Liverpool should be able to find a way through.
40 mins - Cardiff 0 Liverpool 0
Mane is juuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuust offside (maybe) as it looks like he might be threaded through on goal.
Absolute lol at this possession:
37 mins - Cardiff 0 Liverpool 0
Cardiff throw-in, which is basically a corner, and it's won too easily by Liverpool. Henderson hits a first time long ball to Salah who is one v one! Cardiff players sprint back to cover, block the shot and clear.
34 mins - Cardiff 0 Liverpool 0
Liverpool are finding gaps now! Salah gets in behind with a smart little turn but his near post shot is blocked by the goalkeeper and the corner results in a free-kick to Cardiff.
31 mins - Cardiff 0 Liverpool 0
Firmino comes to help out A-A, wins the ball, Cardiff look a little ragged and then A-A overlaps, fires a cross in and Mane is first to it at the near post! His shot takes the ball over the bar but that's Liverpool at their most dangerous.
Niasse has a sit down as he's clearly fouled by Firmino and receives some treatment. Every other player goes to drink a gallon of water.
28 mins - Cardiff 0 Liverpool 0
Alexander-Arnold is now so scared of that Cardiff winger that he's not moving up the pitch to make sure there's no space in behind. That then means when Liverpool's forwards and midfielders get the ball they don't have an option wide right to pass to.
25 mins - Cardiff 0 Liverpool 0
WHAT A MISS! Salah drops, flicks the ball on and Mane threads it into Firmino who is clean in. He's beaten the offside trap and only has the goalkeeper to beat but leans back and slices it high and wide!
Mendez-Laing is unbelievably fast. Jeez Louise he's just burned A-A for pace with about a 10 yard head start, pushed the ball further in front and sprinted to put in a cross but nobody's there to get a head on it! That's Cardiff's attacking threat - left wing.
22 mins - Cardiff 0 Liverpool 0
Robertson is fired up today. He's been screaming at Alexander-Arnold for losing a battle and has now yelled stuff at Mane, which the forward doesn't seem to have taken well.
Cardiff are tracking every Liverpool pass really well, there's barely any space and the ball has to be sent backwards and sideways.
19 mins - Cardiff 0 Liverpool 0
Cardiff are defending really well here, blocking passes, tracking runs, holding their positions and frustrating Liverpool's forwards. Neil Warnock is absolutely raging on the sidelines as his team aren't given a couple of soft looking free-kicks.
16 mins - Cardiff 0 Liverpool 0
Keita loses control of the ball, which according to Gary Neville is because the pitch hasn't been watered and means players have to hit the ball harder to make it go where they want. Alexander-Arnold is beaten for pace as Cardiff break away... the cross is good and Hoilett is back post! He takes it down on the chest and the chance is gone.
The corner is cleared.
13 mins - Cardiff 0 Liverpool 0
Morrison reads Mane's run and the through-ball sent his way superbly, cutting out the danger and tackling cleanly. Liverpool still in total control of the ball but shots like the one Mane just took aren't going to help. That's about 20 yards wide.
10 mins - Cardiff 0 Liverpool 0
Camarasa goes down as he gets a little kick while trying to turn and eventually Liverpool put the ball out of play. He's absolutely fine.
8 mins - Cardiff 0 Liverpool 0
Niasse runs away in behind the Liverpool defence! He's being chase down the left, gets to the box and runs it out of play. Henderson tries a Gerrard pass to Robertson but puts it straight out.
5 mins - Cardiff 0 Liverpool 0
Firmino is caught offside as Alexander-Arnold clips a pass over the top into the channel. They've tried that a couple of times already.
Liverpool in total control of this one, it won't be long before they score if it keeps up like this.
2 mins - Cardiff 0 Liverpool 0
Liverpool on the attack from the start and look dangerous already. Cardiff have everyone behind the ball.
Liverpool get the game started.
It's so hot here that Andy Robbo playing in short sleeves for the first time since Queen's Park couldn't afford long ones— Kieran Canning (@KieranCanning) April 21, 2019
Here come the players
Liverpool players come out and do that point to the sky thing to receive their football energy from the football gods and now it's time for handshakes and the Premier League theme tune. Dun duuuuun, duuun duuuuuuuuun [strings] etc
The managers pre-match
Is Henderson back in a defensive role?
Wait, be patient! [Henderson] will play in a position he likes.
They've lined up the same team as they did against Brighton, means long throw-ins from all over, set-pieces from all over. That's it.
We watched it but we had our own training, our own meeting.
They're such a good side, we're looking forward to it, all the lads didn't want to be left out. We've got nine out of 11 lads who were in the Championship last season! Everyone's got to play at the top of their level.
Everton might have just helped Man City
Man Utd just got royally pumped by Everton, which might either fire up the players to put in the performance of the season and beat City in the derby, or destroy their confidence and roll over.
Cardiff fans have a bit of money
I'm not sure why these ice lolly flavoured cars are outside Cardiff's stadium but it's good to know the city is prospering in these difficult economic times.
The heat is on!
Cardiff desperately want to avoid being relegated, Liverpool even more desperately want to win the Premier League title. Normally you'd think this game is an easy, or guaranteed hard fought win for Liverpool but in these circumstances weird things can happen.
Here are the players who will perform for us today:
Man City's win over Spurs yesterday was crucial and they know they just have to win the next four games to secure the title. Liverpool have the easier run in but could easily slip up with anything less than 100 per cent focus. They've gotten lucky a few times this season - will it run out before the games left do?