LIVERPOOL, England — Mohamed Salah played like a man who had just missed out on World Cup qualification as Liverpool made it 10 successive Premier League victories with a 2-0 win against Watford at Anfield, but as the Egypt forward struggled to shake off his Qatar 2022 disappointment, Diogo Jota showed once again that he can step up when his more celebrated teammates fail to deliver.
Jota’s first-half header from Joe Gomez’s cross — his fourth headed goal this season — gave Jurgen Klopp’s team the lead in a hard-earned victory before the Portugal international won a penalty (awarded following the intervention of VAR) on 86 minutes after being crowded by Juraj Kucka. Fabinho’s successful spot kick sealed Liverpool’s victory on Saturday.
By that stage, Salah was watching from the substitutes’ bench after having been replaced by Sadio Mane on 69 minutes. Four days earlier, Salah had watched his Anfield strike partner score the decisive spot kick as Senegal beat Egypt on penalties to win their World Cup playoff and qualify for Qatar. To compound Salah’s misery, he had missed his own penalty in the shootout.
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Klopp confirmed before the Watford game that Mane asked Liverpool to cancel their traditional ceremony of congratulating players on qualifying for the World Cup out of respect for Salah. “They are good boys, good humans,” the manager said. “They would both consider each other as friends.”
Less than two months ago, Mane had won the Africa Cup of Nations for Senegal with another penalty shootout winner against Egypt, and Klopp said in the days after that game that Salah was dealing with the disappointment, saying it was “really hard” for the 29-year-old. To suffer a similar heavy blow so soon afterward — one that may have denied Salah his final chance to play at the World Cup after his Russia 2018 campaign was marred by the aftereffects of a shoulder injury — will undoubtedly weigh heavily on Salah, and it was evident against Watford that the forward was nowhere near his best form.
For the second successive Premier League game, Salah failed to register a single shot on target and he did little to test Watford’s defence. Every player has off days, even supreme talents like Salah, but with Liverpool still chasing a quadruple this season, they need their talisman to shake off his World Cup hangover quickly.
Yet if you analyze Salah’s form since he returned from his AFCON campaign, he has scored just five goals in 11 games for Liverpool. Before the AFCON tournament, Salah had scored eight in 11 games, so there has been a statistical drop-off. But he has also lost his edge in Liverpool’s big games, with his goals since returning from AFCON duty coming against Leeds, Norwich, Brighton and one against Inter Milan.
Whether his contractual situation is proving a distraction — his deal expires in 2023 and no new agreement is in place — only Salah will know, but he has undoubtedly suffered two major career disappointments in recent weeks, so he would be understandable if his focus is affected as a consequence.
The good news for Liverpool and Salah is the weeks ahead are packed with huge games — Manchester City in the Premier League and FA Cup, Benfica in the Champions League quarterfinals — so he will not have to go looking for motivation to drag him out of his slump. But if Salah is unable to rediscover his form and sharpness in the weeks ahead, Liverpool at least know that Jota is ready, willing and able to fill the void — a point he made with his headed goal.
“Jota is top,” Klopp said. “He’s really decisive. Great cross; great header.”
Like Salah, Jota has also scored five goals in his past 11 games for Liverpool, but he is not playing with the same previous record as Salah. While Salah is underperforming, Jota is arguably delivering beyond expectations. And his goals are proving to be important goals. The Portugal international scored both in a 2-0 win against Leicester and has also netted the crucial openers in wins against Arsenal, Nottingham Forest (in the FA Cup) and in this game against Watford.
Any manager will gladly take all kinds of goals from his forwards, but when they score to break the deadlock in a tight game, the goals carry more weight, and Klopp will be pleased that Jota has developed a habit for doing this when the team needs it most.
There is no doubt that Liverpool will need Salah to get somewhere close to his best form in the weeks ahead if they are to win the Premier League or Champions League. He has delivered at the highest level before and you would never rule him out in terms of doing it again. But while Salah deals with the angst of missing out on AFCON glory and World Cup qualification, Liverpool can rely on Jota. And that’s why they are now one step closer to an unprecedented quadruple.