At the kick-off, it was all about Claudio Ranieri. By the end it was all about Mohamed Salah, because nowadays virtually everything is. Nobody in the top flight is operating on quite the same plane as Salah, who is producing some of the best and most consistent football seen at this level in the modern era. Anyone preparing charges of hyperbole would surely be persuaded by a viewing of his past 10 performances: they have brought 10 goals but there has been so much more and he came close to surpassing himself here.
That is all the more remarkable given that, in more run-of-the-mill company, all manner of other narratives could have dominated. Never mind a ghastly Watford performance in Ranieri’s first game as head coach; Liverpool could bask in Roberto Firmino’s first hat-trick since December 2018 or, just as worthily, in Sadio Mané’s 100th Premier League goal. Salah’s part in the latter had demonstrated he is operating towards the point of maximum expression but nine minutes into the second half he rendered it a footnote.
Firmino had just poached his second goal, Liverpool’s third, when Salah received possession a yard inside Watford’s penalty area. The ensuing sequence recalled his exhilarating effort against Manchester City and, in some interpretations, bettered it. Was this one really as good? It had less riding on it but otherwise the elements were present.
Four defenders stood between Salah and the goal but after seeing two of them off by feinting and rolling his foot over the ball he left Craig Cathcart on the floor as he checked on to his left foot. Now he had a half-chance and how masterfully he took it, bending an angled finish across a helpless Ben Foster. If the effort a fortnight ago owed more to speed, this was a mindboggling lesson in mastery of tight spaces.
“You could see how the team celebrated the goal, everyone realised it was something special,” said Jürgen Klopp. He shied from ranking the latest entries in Salah’s personal goal of the season contest, simply saying: “None of them are possible for people with normal feet but obviously possible for him.”
Salah had already entered the realm of fantasy with the action that first unlocked Watford. Ranieri had selected Danny Rose as the left-sided member of a back three and the opening exchanges suggested Liverpool had an easy target.
Rose allowed Salah to roll him too easily near halfway in the eighth minute and glancing to his left the Egyptian spotted Mané’s run. He fed it with a first-time pass, bent with the outside of his foot and perfectly weighted beyond two covering opponents. It was a sumptuous piece of skill and Mané rewarded it with a clinical finish on the run, bringing up his milestone.
“He brought that from the summer break: after that he started doing these kinds of thing,” Klopp said of Salah’s assist. It feels gratifying that after four years working with his star turn the Liverpool manager had yet to see it all.
Watford would have happily been spared a demonstration of anything more but there was scant chance of that. They could have been three down after 20 minutes and had not laid a glove on their visitors by the time Firmino doubled the lead.
It was a simple finish, planted in from point-blank range after Naby Keïta had found an indefatigable James Milner’s underlapping run to the left byline.
By half-time Watford had had 18% of the ball and the goodwill that greeted Ranieri felt a distant memory. It need not be a disgrace for Liverpool to be running rings around you but Watford offered not a jot of the blood and thunder that could have mitigated that and Ranieri said his players had been nervous.
The ironic cheers that greeted Juraj Kucka’s 55th-minute shot, comfortably saved by Caoimhin Kelleher, said enough: at 4-0 down, it was Watford’s first.
The home side’s inadequacy should not place too big an asterisk against Liverpool’s offering. Ranieri tweaked things at the break but it made no difference, Foster denying Salah brilliantly before doing similarly to stop Cathcart from scoring an own goal, only for Firmino to gobble the rebound.
That set the platform for Salah’s party piece, from which point it was hard to expect the afternoon to offer much more.
Watford belatedly summoned some gusto but Mané missed a sitter and then, tapping in with the last kick, Firmino claimed the match ball. On any other day, in the presence of almost any other footballer, the plaudits would have been his.