Mane fires Liverpool beyond Wolves but VAR mars Anfield clash
Sadio Mane’s 14th goal of the season saw Premier League leaders Liverpool re-establish their 13-point lead at the top – but the 1-0 victory was not without the now seemingly obligatory VAR controversy.
Two incidents in the three minutes before half-time encapsulated the best and worst of the review system, with the hosts rightly having Mane’s goal reinstated after referee Anthony Taylor incorrectly called a handball on Adam Lallana.
On the flip side Wolves had a Pedro Neto equaliser chalked off for another of those marginal offside decisions which are virtually invisible to the naked eye.
Fans on social media have been making the ‘Li-VAR-Pool’ joke since Jurgen Klopp’s side rose to the top and stayed there early in the season and this was arguably one of those occasions when a case could be made for the technology working in their favour.
It will matter in the final reckoning, however, if – as expected – Liverpool go on to win their first title in 30 years.
Klopp felt he could not make more than one change, replacing Naby Keita with Lallana, but Wolves boss Nuno Espirito Santo left out the key trio of Matt Doherty, Adama Traore and Raul Jimenez after their exertions in beating Manchester City on Friday.
This was a Liverpool performance in marked contrast to their Boxing Day demolition of nearest challengers Leicester, an attritional game mainly due to Wolves’ five at the back and four in midfield doing a good stifling job.
Nevertheless with better finishing the hosts could still have been ahead early on as Mohamed Salah diverted over Trent Alexander-Arnold’s cross and volleyed a Mane header at Rui Patricio.
Georginio Wijnaldum’s effort was also too high while Roberto Firmino’s deflected shot had the goalkeeper scrambling to reach his right-hand post.
Three minutes before the break came the first VAR decision, which was not actually controversial at all in that it ultimately came to the right conclusion.
Virgil Van Dijk’s long pass picked out Lallana with the ball bouncing off his shoulder into the path of Mane, who expertly beat Patricio with a half-volley at his near post.
Taylor ruled out the goal for a handball only for video replays to correctly overturn that decision, meaning of the 73 goals scored by Liverpool at Anfield in 2019, Mane had 19 of them.
VAR actually did Wolves a favour in that respect as their sense of injustice fired them up and without that added impetus it is debatable whether they would have even got to the point of having a goal disallowed in added time.
Neto, in for the rested Jimenez, tucked a low cross inside Alisson Becker’s right-hand post and ran directly towards the main stand wildly waving his arms, his actions almost suggesting he held Liverpool and their fans responsible for somehow influencing the episode moments earlier at the other end.
However, his celebrations were cut short when VAR ruled the outside of Jonny’s left foot was offside in the build-up.
The visitors’ mood darkened further and the half-time whistle probably spared them further punishment, although Nuno was booked for his obvious frustration in the technical area.
Just past the hour the Wolves boss changed things up by sending on speedster Traore, who did all the damage in beating City, and Romain Saiss for Leander Dendoncker and Ruben Neves.
But it was Diogo Jota who was first to threaten as, after robbing Van Dijk on the edge of the area, he forced Alisson to save.
Some wayward shooting cost the visitors – whose fans disappeared into the night voicing their anger at VAR singing ‘Is this football any more?’ – the chance of equalising late on as the Reds racked up a 18th win in 19 outings.