Claudio Ranieri may be much-loved for his unshakable optimism, but even he will fail to glean any positives from the carcass of this wretched return to English football.
The Italian was a helpless bystander as he watched his new Watford side ravaged, ruthlessly and resoundingly, by Liverpool at Vicarage Road on Saturday, and the eventual scoreline of 5-0 was if anything lenient.
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There can be few sweeping conclusions in such early stages of Ranieri’s tenure, but there should be no pretences either. This was a desperate display from Watford, who were dominated throughout and booed off at half-time. Not so much a new manager bounce, this was an afternoon that instead plumbed the depths of rock-bottom. Credit for that, though, must also be paid to Liverpool, who remain unbeaten and moved to the top of the table. Roberto Firmino completed his hat-trick in stoppage time but it was, again, Mohamed Salah’s genius that demanded the spotlight. His goal – Liverpool’s fourth – was of the finest calibre, greater perhaps even than his previous against Manchester City, and left a trail of strewn limbs in his path. For Watford, it will take a while to wipe clean the dirt and disappointment of such a chastening afternoon.
Amid such a miserable performance, it was easy to forget the sense of hopeful expectation that had stirred ahead of kick-off. The guillotine had fallen swiftly and guiltlessly on Xisco Munoz, but any grief had quickly been exorcised over the international break. The supporters in these parts are by now intimately familiar with the unforgiving cycle and met Ranieri with a riotous ovation. A few days away from his 70th birthday, any semblance of celebration was short-lived. Despite arriving with a depleted squad, with Alisson, Fabinho and Curtis Jones all unavailable, Liverpool’s vast superiority was immediately evident and, in truth, the omens of defeat were apparent within minutes.
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Ranieri’s traditional tinkering saw Watford switch to a back five, with Danny Rose playing as the left-sided centre-back. It was a tweak forced in part by injury, and purported to help stifle Salah’s slippery movement, but was soon exposed as the trigger for Watford’s self-destruction. Rose wasn’t so much a lamb to the slaughter as a spectre brought back to life, and Salah was the master of the seance. Twice in the space of five minutes, he slipped in behind with utter ease and Watford failed to heed the warnings. Moments later, an effortless shimmy of the shoulders shook of Rose, Salah played a pinpoint ball with the outside of his boot and Sadio Mane rolled in his 100th Premier League goal. It might have felt more brazen if it weren’t quite so easy.
There was to be no abating the onslaught. Salah danced to his own rhythm, the defenders thrashing helplessly at his feet, but in reality, the Egyptian’s showboating was barely required to break open such a brittle defence. Virgil van Dijk and Trent Alexander-Arnold delivered accurate passes from deep that consistently wreaked havoc and the only surprise was that the lead wasn’t stretched sooner. Ben Foster’s fingertip save denied Salah a second and a rare errant touch by the winger wasted another clear sight of goal.
Watford might have gleaned hope from the spurned chances, but they could only claw at shadows, without the might or mind to offer any resistance. Ismaila Sarr had tormented Jurgen Klopp’s side so spectacularly 18 months ago, but was isolated and frustrated and it’s no exaggeration to claim Watford could hardly string a pass together. The second goal was simply a matter of time and was assuredly simple. Naby Keita, who replaced Jones excellently in midfield, created space for James Milner on the overlap and, granted all the space in the world to stretch his 35-year-old legs, duly found Roberto Firmino for the most routine of tap-ins. Had it not been for an excellent block that deflected Keita’s rasping shot onto the crossbar, the lead would have been three before the boos rang out at half-time. Even in such nascent stages, it is difficult to say they were unwarranted. In all, Watford had managed just 17 per cent possession, had completed only 45 passes and had failed to muster a single shot.
Ranieri tinkered at half-time, bringing on Tom Cleverley to fortify the midfield, but he could do little to stem the unravelling. Salah remained irrepressible, cutting inside onto his left foot and forcing a brilliant save at full stretch from Foster. Soon afterwards, the dam was broken wide open again. It was not remiss of another moment of hapless defending, either. Salah had been offside as he attempted to run onto Andrew Roberston’s through-ball, but Craig Cathcart’s interception redirected the ball towards the bottom corner with the sort of precision a striker might envy. Foster did manage to get a palm to the ball, but Firmino was waiting graciously to swipe into the empty net.
But while such a calamitous afternoon for Ranieri will invite scrutiny, it was Salah’s exquisiteness for which this match will be best remembered. His goal was a feat of genius few players in the world can match and will add further credence to those who claim he is, at present, the best of all. He picked up the loose ball on the edge of the box, was immediately surrounded by three yellow shirts, and tip-toed between them with staccato brilliance, each stutter throwing the defence off balance. By the time he cut back a final time onto his left foot, and curled the ball into the far corner, even Watford’s supporters were silenced in admiration.
Watford did at least show their pride of fight in the final stages, and nearly grabbed a consolation, but that would not have disguised the stark reality. Instead, it was Firmino who capitalised on Neco Williams’s darting run to seal his hat-trick and condemn Watford to a worse fate. What was supposed to be a bright start might have ended in sunshine, as the rain cleared overheard, but it left Watford’s new era with nothing to savour.
Photo Credit: Getty