Liverpool took a significant step to sealing Champions League qualification as Emre Can scored a goal-of-the-season contender to down Watford on Monday night.
Jurgen Klopp had seen Manchester City, Manchester United and Arsenal drop points in the battle for the Premier League top four before his side travelled to Vicarage Road – and they took full advantage.
A largely forgettable 90 minutes was settled when Can lit up a cold Hertfordshire evening with a superb volley in first-half stoppage time to clinch a 1-0 win.
The victory moved Liverpool four points clear of United in fifth, although they have played a game more than their bitter rivals.
Watford, on 40 points and all but safe from the drop, were not at the races as they failed to react to captain Troy Deeney’s criticism following the recent defeat at Hull.
The opening quarter of the contest was interrupted by injuries as Liverpool lost Philippe Coutinho with less than 10 minutes gone before Miguel Britos hobbled off for the hosts soon after.
Watford goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes was forced into action as he pushed a long-range Can effort away from goal.
The game stuttered along for the majority of the half with very little incident until Adam Lallana, Coutinho’s replacement, hit the bar with a looping effort.
Lucas Leiva was then booked for diving as the half threatened to end with a whimper, only for Can to take centre-stage.
The ball was neatly worked in-field from the right and Lucas, the villain of the piece moments earlier, clipped in a cross which Can acrobatically volleyed home to open the scoring on the stroke of half-time.
The startlingly goal seemed to inject fresh belief into Klopp’s men and James Milner saw a low free-kick saved soon after the interval – with Gomes also having to turn a Divock Origi strike behind for a corner as Liverpool looked to kill the game off with a second.
Origi should have doubled the lead on 57 minutes but shot tamely at Gomes when through on goal, with the Hornets finally working Simon Mignolet courtesy of an Etienne Capoue strike.
The Frenchman was booked for his protestations as referee Craig Pawson signalled for a goal-kick, but it at least stirred the home fans.
It also lifted the Watford players, although in their attempts to equalise they were almost caught on the counter-attack, with Nordin Amrabat just able to prevent Lallana tucking away a goal on his return.
Can could not repeat his earlier heroics as he ballooned a shot wide and Mignolet made a meal out of a late Daryl Janmaat shot.
As Watford poured forward, Liverpool’s goal lived a charmed life with Sebastian Prodl smashing the crossbar with a stoppage-time volley.
This win may have not been as emphatic as the 6-1 drubbing doled out by Liverpool when the sides met in November at Anfield – where Can also scored as the Reds went top of the table for the first time under Klopp.
But, having struggled against sides in the bottom half and with their rivals dropping points, it was just as important for the German and his hopes of a return to Europe’s top table.