Mohamed Salah played like Lionel Messi in training at Chelsea and Jose Mourinho failed to get the best out of the star forward, according to former Blues team-mate Filipe Luis.

Chelsea bought Salah to the Premier League in January 2014 after striking a reported £11million fee with Swiss side Basel.

But it was an unhappy spell for the Egypt international under Mourinho, with Salah starting just 10 games, scoring twice and supplying three assists before being shipped off on loan to Fiorentina a year later.

A spell at Roma followed his time with the Viola and it was his impressive performances in Serie A that convinced Liverpool to give him a second chance in English football.

With the Reds, Salah has become a Premier League and Champions League winner, and Filipe Luis – who similar difficulties forcing his way into Mourinho's plans – said his talent was always evident at Stamford Bridge.

"I won the league with him [Mourinho]. But he didn't get the best out of me, just as he didn't with Salah," the former Brazil international told the Guardian.

"When he went Fiorentina, I said: 'Why are you going, Momo? This is Chelsea.' And he said: 'I need to play.' I thought: 'This kid's good.' He never went for money or to win more; he went to show he could play. In training he was like Messi. Really, like Messi. Ask anyone."

Filipe Luis arrived at Chelsea in July 2014 having just won LaLiga with Atletico Madrid, a club with whom he was also a Copa del Rey and Europa League winner and a Champions League runner-up prior to moving to London.

Despite his reputation as one of the best left-backs in the world at that time, Mourinho afforded him just 26 appearances in all competitions and nine starts in the Premier League.

However, reflecting on that time in his career Filipe Luis insists he harbours no ill will towards Mourinho and accepts the form of Cesar Azpilicueta meant he could have few complaints.

"I haven't told anyone this but the first game I knocked on [Jose] Mourinho's door," he said. "'Can I talk to you?' 'Come in.' 'Why did you bring me here? You took me from a place I was happy, where I played every week. You signed me to play. And the first day against Burnley I'm on the bench. Why not leave me at Atletico? Why bring me here not to play?' 

"He said he didn't think I was playing well and Azpilicueta was, that he didn't feel as secure with me. I had to win my place; I couldn't expect to be first choice on reputation. And looking back, he was right.

"He played so well he never gave me a chance. Mourinho rotated so I did get chances but I didn't start big games because the team was playing perfectly. We had great players. Eden Hazard, [Cesc] Fabregas, Diego Costa."

Hazard, a modern-day Blues great, was a player who Filipe Luis was particularly enthralled by.

"Alongside Neymar, Eden's the best I've played with. He's up there with Messi, winning games alone. 

"He didn't run to defend much, didn't train well, and five minutes before games he'd be playing Mario Kart in the dressing room. He trained and warmed up laces untied. But he'd go out and no one could take the ball. He'd dribble three or four. If opponents got too close, he'd just pull away, so powerful.

"So intelligent: one-two, combine, go alone; assist, score, everything. Maybe he lacks the ambition to say 'I'll be the world's best', because he could be. For talent, the best. 

"Cesc had an extraordinary season too. And Costa. Then the defence was incredible. John Terry's one of the best captains I've had. Even the bench: Oscar, Obi Mikel, Mohamed Salah, [Andre] Schurrle, Kurt Zouma, [Didier] Drogba, Loic Remy. Some team."

It turns out all Liverpool needed was a short midweek break to Budapest to reconnect, restore some confidence and rediscover their ruthless streak.

Tuesday's 2-0 triumph over RB Leipzig in the Hungarian capital was a much-needed boost for Jurgen Klopp's squad, as the Champions League seemingly holds their only hope of silverware.

Before the second leg, though, they resume a Premier League campaign that has seen the focus switch from retaining the title to finishing in the top four. With no club spared from feeling the financial impact of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the Reds can ill-afford to miss out on the monetary benefits that come from playing in Europe's premier competition.

Next up: the Merseyside derby on Saturday. Liverpool welcome their neighbours to Anfield having lost three league games on the spin for the first time in Klopp's reign, though the European trip helped quickly lift the gloom that had engulfed them following the disheartening 3-1 defeat to Leicester City.

Mohamed Salah scored against Leipzig, meaning the Egyptian now has 24 in all competitions. There was also a goal for Sadio Mane, who – unlike his fellow forward – has not quite hit the same heights as he reached previously.

A one-on-one finish lifted Mane's tally for the season to 11 in 31 appearances, though just seven of those goals have come in league action. The Senegal forward finished level for the Golden Boot with Salah and Arsenal's Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in 2018-19 on 22 goals, while last term he managed 18.

It will take a strong finish down the stretch to get close to those figures again, but is there a clear reason for Mane's dip in productivity?


ISSUES UP FRONT - AND AT THE BACK

After 24 games in 2019-20, runaway leaders Liverpool had scored 56 goals and let in 15. At the same stage this season, they have conceded 32. Without a solid foundation to build on, the sense of invincibility has disappeared, replaced instead by a vulnerability that offers opponents hope, provided they repel what comes their way.

The attack could help mask some of those defensive deficiencies. While they have managed fewer goals this season (45), the numbers have remained relatively consistent with previous years.

Though Liverpool's shot conversion rate of 17.58 per cent is slightly lower, they have done better when it comes to putting away big chances, per Opta data. At 45.31 per cent, the Reds have been more successful than a season ago (40.37), albeit their minutes-per-goal average is obviously up (48 compared to 40.24, while in the 2018-19 season it went even lower, down at 38.43).

After consistent improvement, a plateau or a dip was always going to come along at some stage. What was not expected, however, is the number of injuries Klopp has had to deal with. It should not be underestimated how the rotation behind the established forward line has had an effect, particularly with midfield regulars Fabinho and Jordan Henderson having to fill in for absent centre-backs.


TARGET PRACTICE REQUIRED

Key absences have obviously hampered Liverpool, but the established trio up top have remained relatively consistent in Klopp's line-ups. Diogo Jota did arrive to provide competition, yet his fast start to life on Merseyside was put on hold by a long-term injury. Yes, even new recruits were not safe from suffering pain.

Predominantly playing on the left side of a front three, Mane has occupied similar positions to the previous season. His total number of shots appears on course to be similar, though there has been a noticeable decline when it comes to converting them.

His success rate of 14.29 per cent with attempts is his lowest since signing for the club. There is no such regression when it comes to taking big chances, yet his average of 255 minutes per goal is not just a major rise on previous years with Liverpool, but also higher than either of his seasons spent with Southampton.

It is, therefore, hardly surprising that Mane is underperforming in terms of his xG (expected goals) rate for 2020-21, with his seven goals from 63 attempts under his expected total of 9.3. In contrast, when helping secure a long-awaited championship, Liverpool's first in the top flight for 30 years, he hit 18 goals - a total managed from 77 shots - to comfortably outperform his xG of 13.7.


DERBY DAYS PROVIDE FOND MEMORIES

Having scored against Leipzig, Mane will be aiming to once again make an impact in what looks to be a pivotal derby for both teams. 

The 28-year-old was on target against Everton in the 2-2 result at Goodison Park back in October, a game that changed Liverpool's course dramatically as Virgil van Dijk suffered a serious knee injury. There were signs of cracks appearing before then - most noticeably in the shock 7-2 defeat at Aston Villa - but the Dutchman’s absence continues to be keenly felt.

The Reds leaned heavily on Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold as attacking outlets on their way to being crowned champions. The full-back pairing had 16 assists between them, the former leading the way with 10 (vastly higher than his xA - expected assists - value of 4.88).

This term, they have not quite had the same impact going forwards. They have three assists each, in line with their xA figures. Mane has also contributed the same number, having registered seven in the league in 2019-20.

Fatigue - both mental and physical - could also be an issue for Mane and his team-mates. According to former Liverpool player Vladimir Smicer, it would be understandable considering what they have been through, not just across the past few months but indeed ever since their unlikely run to the Champions League final in 2018. 

"Sometimes we are missing a bit of freshness in important moments in the game, which is the difference in regard to last season," Smicer told Stats Perform News courtesy of KIA.

"Even the VAR decisions against Liverpool this year, where last year everything was perfect, going well. 

"That might be why even Mane – a fantastic player, in my eyes one of the best players in the world – is suffering a little bit, whether it be with fewer goals, or his offensive potency."

Everton could be just the opponents to raise levels again, though. Mane has never lost a derby meeting in his Liverpool career, a record he will be keen to protect this weekend.

Liverpool took charge of their Champions League last-16 tie with RB Leipzig as they claimed a 2-0 win in the first leg in Budapest.

Julian Nagelsmann's side, who pipped Manchester United to a place in the knockouts, looked far from comfortable in the unfamiliar surroundings of the Puskas Arena, where Tuesday's game was held to due to coronavirus travel restrictions.

Mohamed Salah's 24th goal of the season put Liverpool ahead after a mistake by Kevin Kampl, and Sadio Mane doubled the advantage when Nordi Mukiele gifted him an opportunity.

The Reds are now unbeaten in six away games against Bundesliga opposition stretching back to 2002, and Jurgen Klopp's men will be firm favourites to progress to the quarter-finals.

Liverpool nearly fell behind after just five minutes, Dani Olmo's diving header hitting the inside of the post from Angelino's cross.

The away side looked the most threatening as they began to take control, and Peter Gulacsi was alert to block a Salah effort from close range before Roberto Firmino fired a shot into the side-netting.

Mane then headed over from six yards from a Firmino cross, and the Senegalese thought he had set up his strike partner to nod in the opener after errors from Dayot Upamecano, but the ball had gone out of play.

Christopher Nkunku had barely been involved in the first half but he could have given Leipzig the lead early in the second, Alisson saving well after the striker ran onto Olmo's throughball.

It was Salah who broke the deadlock 53 minutes in, drilling past Gulacsi after a dreadful backpass from Kampl, and it soon got worse for Leipzig.

Mukiele made a complete mess of a simple clearance forward by Curtis Jones, and Mane had time to stride into the box and slot home.

Angelino had a chance to pull a goal back but sliced his attempt badly, summing up a poor game for last season's semi-finalists.

What does it mean? Fragile Liverpool give season huge boost

Injuries and recent form - they had won three of their previous 12 games in all competitions - will have had Liverpool fans feeling a little anxious before meeting the side second in the Bundesliga.

However, a display of supreme authority, helped by an erratic approach from Leipzig, put Klopp's men in total charge of this tie and could well have provided a timely boost in confidence.

Leipzig will hope for better in the second leg, but their previous visit to England ended in a 5-0 defeat to Manchester United.

Salah at menacing best

Salah should perhaps have scored sooner but he made no mistake with his clearest chance of the game.

He spent the rest of the game harassing a deeply unsettled Leipzig defence in a hugely impressive, committed performance.

Nagelsmann's men in a muddle

Leipzig were on a six-game unbeaten run at home in this competition and it was unfortunate for them that this game had to be relocated to a neutral venue.

Still, that does not explain the horribly haphazard nature of their performance. Two defensive errors led directly to the goals, Mukiele could have been sent off before his mistake, while Bayern Munich-bound Upamecano misplaced 20 passes from centre-back.

What's next?

With the return leg not until March 10, Liverpool's more pressing concern is a derby with Everton on Saturday. Leipzig head to Hertha Berlin in the Bundesliga a day later.

Leicester City scored three goals in the space of seven minutes to stun Liverpool as the Premier League champions slipped to a 3-1 defeat in Jurgen Klopp's 300th match in charge. 

Mohamed Salah's carefully placed finish gave the visitors a 67th-minute lead at the King Power Stadium, yet from a position of strength they suffered a dramatic collapse to slip to a third successive loss. 

James Maddison equalised with a free-kick from a tight angle – the strike was initially ruled out for offside prior to a VAR check – before a calamitous moment between Alisson, at fault for two goals in last Sunday's 4-1 loss to Manchester City, and debutant Ozan Kabak gifted Jamie Vardy his first goal of 2021. 

With Liverpool still reeling, Harvey Barnes wrapped up a first win for Brendan Rodgers over his former employers since the end of his Anfield reign – and moved his current club six points clear of them in the table. 

Ilkay Gundogan scored twice as Manchester City secured a record-equalling 14th successive win in all competitions – and a first for Pep Guardiola at Anfield - with a 4-1 thrashing of struggling Liverpool.  

The Germany midfielder made amends for a first-half penalty miss with a brace after the break as the visitors cut loose to march five points clear at the Premier League summit.  

Alisson's poor clearance led to Gundogan's second of the game and the goalkeeper was also at fault for City's third, as Raheem Sterling headed in his 100th for the club under Guardiola. Phil Foden rubbed salt in the home side's wounds with a superb solo goal to round out the scoring. 

The result leaves Liverpool's title defence in tatters; they have lost three successive league games at home for the first time since 1963 and sit 10 points back having played a game more than the leaders.  

Mohamed Salah did end a home league goal drought spanning 410 minutes when he converted a penalty having been pulled back by Ruben Dias, but Alisson’s errors helped City respond in emphatic fashion.

Jurgen Klopp has lauded his Liverpool side for once again making life "uncomfortable" for their opponents following a 3-1 win at West Ham on Sunday. 

The defending Premier League champions ended a five-match winless run in the top flight by beating Tottenham 3-1 on Thursday and they followed that up with another impressive victory in London.

Mohamed Salah took his Premier League tally against West Ham to nine – his best return against a side in the competition – with a fine double, while Georginio Wijnaldum's late effort ensured all three points against David Moyes' side, who scored a consolation through Craig Dawson.

The win moves the Reds to four points adrift of leaders Manchester City, who have a game in hand, and Klopp is pleased his players are starting to find their form after a tricky period.

"These boys are a really good group," he told Sky Sports. "They're not happy at not being successful, not winning, but they always have the right attitude.

"But they need the right information as well; I said that after the Burnley game [when they lost 1-0], that was my fault.

"Now we have found a way for us to be uncomfortable for other teams. Our last two games were like this."

The result means Liverpool have won more Premier League matches against West Ham (31) then they have against any other side in the competition, while they have lost just one of their past 16 Premier League games in London.

All of the Reds' goals came in the second period, with Klopp attributing their revival to a series of half-time tweaks.

"It was a great game, a very professional game, very controlled against usually a flying side," he added.

"We didn't create enough in the first half, but we controlled the game. We made little adjustments at half-time and it paid off. We scored three unbelievable goals. I'm really happy.

"In the first half we had three midfielders on the other side of the ball so Xherdan Shaqiri had to pass backwards. We wanted Divock Origi more in the centre. We played a double 10 then with Thiago [Alcantara] and Shaqiri."

Liverpool welcome Brighton and Hove Albion to Anfield on Wednesday before Pep Guardiola's City travel to Merseyside on Sunday.

Mohamed Salah conceded he felt the extra responsibility to score for Liverpool against West Ham after starting without Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino in the front three.

With Mane ruled out because of a minor injury and Roberto Firmino starting on the bench, there was extra onus on Liverpool's talisman to deliver the goods.

He did so in style, his second-half double putting Liverpool on course for a 3-1 win over the Hammers, moving the defending Premier League champions within four points of leaders Manchester City after playing a game more.

After curling home a 57th-minute opener, Salah then rounded off a sparkling counter-attack following wondrous passes from Trent Alexander-Arnold and Xherdan Shaqiri.

In doing so he became the first player to score 20+ goals in all competitions in four consecutive seasons for Liverpool since Ian Rush did so six times running from 1981-82 to 1986-87.

Salah has now been involved in 29 goals in his 21 Premier League starts without Mane, with his sparkling second goal his first from a fast break this season.

Reflecting the added pressure he felt, Salah's total shots (seven) were his most in the league since Liverpool's 4-3 opening win over Leeds United in September, while his four shots on target represented a season-high for the Egypt forward.

Asked about that weight of expectation, Salah told Sky Sports: "Before the game, I knew they were not going to start, I knew there was extra responsibility on me but not just now but every game, I try to help the team.

"Of course today they both didn't play, it was a big responsibility but I play without them before and we win also."

Since Salah's arrival in June 2017, Liverpool's win percentage in all competitions in games where Mane and Firmino have both started is 67 compared to 58 in games where at least one of that duo is not in the XI, though their goals per game tally (2.2) is equal.

Depending on the severity of Mane's injury, Liverpool may have to cope without him again next Sunday when they host City at Anfield in a huge clash, which comes four days after the visit of Brighton and Hove Albion.

On if it will need relentless wins to beat City and Manchester United to the title, Salah said: "If you want to win the league you have to win every game, but this year City were struggling in beginning.

"Then it was us struggling three or four games ago - you just need to keep winning if you want to win the Premier League."

Kylian Mbappe's future continues to dominate headlines.

For so long, Real Madrid have been favourites to prise Mbappe to the Santiago Bernabeu.

But Premier League champions Liverpool are believed to be stepping up their pursuit.

 

TOP STORY – LIVERPOOL FRONTRUNNERS FOR MBAPPE

Liverpool are ahead of Real Madrid in the race to sign Paris Saint-Germain star Kylian Mbappe , according to Canal+ show Late Football Club.

Mbappe has been tipped to leave Ligue 1 champions PSG for LaLiga holders Madrid at the end of the season.

But Liverpool are reportedly the frontrunners to prise the France World Cup winner to Anfield amid doubts over Mohamed Salah 's future.

 

ROUND-UP

- Marca says Madrid are preparing for the departure of Sergio Ramos as their star captain nears an exit. The soon-to-be free agent has been linked with the likes of PSG , Juventus , Manchester United and Manchester City .

- Will Roma striker Edin Dzeko and Inter's Alexis Sanchez swap clubs? Sky Sport Italia reports an exchange deal could be set to collapse. City reportedly turned down a chance to re-sign Dzeko, who has a fractured relationship with Roma head coach Paulo Fonseca.

Milan are continuing to target Palmeiras and Uruguayan defender Matias Vina , says Calciomercato.

- Cadena Cope reports PSG want to sign Barcelona defender Emerson , who is on loan at Real Betis.

- Sport Bild journalist Christian Falk says United are interested in RB Leipzig defender Dayot Upamecano , but Bayern Munich lead the race to secure his services at season's end. Upamecano has also been linked to the likes of Chelsea and Liverpool .

- Falk also confirmed that Leipzig defender Ibrahima Konate has a release clause in excess of €40million (£35m) amid interest from United , Liverpool and Tottenham .

United are eyeing Barca's Ousmane Dembele if Borussia Dortmund star Jadon Sancho does not arrive ahead of the 2021-22 campaign, according to Falk.

No one at Liverpool will ever rush to take comfort from any defeat to Manchester United.

But, amid the rubble of Sunday's 3-2 loss at Old Trafford in the fourth round of the FA Cup, there were signs the Premier League's most-celebrated frontline of recent times were clicking back into gear.

Mohamed Salah scored both Liverpool goals and will hope to end a top-flight drought stretching back to December's 7-0 shellacking of Crystal Palace when Tottenham host the defending champions on Thursday.

Perhaps more significantly, each of Salah's strikes were laid on by Roberto Firmino.

Aside from trying to work out who on earth will play at centre-back on any given week, it feels like Jurgen Klopp has spent more time on public defences of the Brazil centre-forward than anything else this season.

The Reds boss claimed he would be "embarrassed" to list all of Firmino's qualities and said "I can't help these people, sorry" when asked to explain the player's worth to the doubters.

Later in November he labelled Firmino "a complete footballer", not to mention a pretty impressive musician, who "plays something like 12 instruments in our orchestra".

However, since the symphonic grandeur of their display at Palace, Liverpool have not been able to move for bum notes in front of goal.

Firmino has not found the net in any competitive game since that trip to Selhurst Park, and former Anfield favourite Jamie Carragher singled him out after the 0-0 top-flight draw against United earlier this month.

"I'm still confident Sadio Mane and Salah will start scoring goals again," he said on Sky Sports' Monday Night Football. "I must say I am worried for Firmino."

Again, Klopp went in to bat for the former Hoffenheim man. But is it fair for the 29-year-old to repeatedly receive such scrutiny? Conversely, is Klopp motivated by anything more than loyalty to a diligent servant by this point?

Bobby's strike rate not dazzling

Firmino's five Premier League goals this season have come from 46 shots with an expected goals (xG) value of 6.9. He is yet to score in the Champions League.

Under-performing his xG is not exactly new territory for him. When widely hailed as a key member of a dominant title-winning team last season, his nine league goals from 99 shots came in well below an xG of 14.

When Spurs and Liverpool met at Anfield last month, Firmino netted a 90th-minute winner to snatch a 2-1 victory. These are the sort of "heavy goals" that will endear a player to a manager.

Since the start of the 2017-18 season, when the Salah-Mane-Firmino trident first came together, 16 of Firmino's 41 Premier League goals have been winners, or 39 per cent.

Mane (56) and Salah (86) have scored more often and netted more winners (17 and 26 respectively) but their percentage of decisive goals is slightly lower at 30.

Salah heads into Thursday's game as the Premier League's top scorer with 13 goals – one ahead of Spurs duo Harry Kane and Son Heung-min on 12 apiece – and 19 in all competitions.

Given goalscoring has never been hailed as Firmino's forte, perhaps it is Mane's drop off inside the penalty area that should be a greater cause for concern.

The Senegal international's six Premier League goals have arrived from 52 attempts with an xG value of 7.4. Amid a career-best run of form on the way to the title, Mane's 18 top-flight goals comfortably outstripped an xG of 13.7.

Diogo Jota's perceived importance to Liverpool has skyrocketed during his injury absence and the former Wolves man's nine goals across the Premier League and Champions League from an xG of 4.9 give him a solid argument to be picked ahead of either Mane or Firmino when fitness allows.

Old Trafford sea change?

As mentioned above, Firmino showcased a key facet of his game at the weekend by laying on both Salah strikes and creating four chances overall – his most in a game this season.

He now has five assists in all competitions this term, set against four for Salah and three from Mane.

However, he has created notably fewer chances – 28 compared to Salah's 41 and Mane's 40.

Indeed, using Opta's expected assists (xA) metric, we can see that in the Premier League and Champions League combined, Firmino has created a lower quality of chances cumulatively.

The trio have three open play assists apiece in those competitions, although Salah's open play xA is four, with Mane's 2.9 and Firmino's 2.3.

Heavy metal football for the multi-instrumentalists 

Outside of their goal involvements, the collective work rate of the Liverpool front three, their willingness to do the dirty work and set the tone for Klopp's gegenpressing machine has become a trademark.

Firmino is particularly celebrated in this regard. Per 90 minutes, his tackles (1.24 > 1.06), interceptions (0.3 > 0.24) and instances of winning possession in the final third (1.08 > 0.82) are all down on last season. With 1.52 tackles per 90 and 0.4 interceptions, he is being outperformed by Mane in these aspects.

However, in the context of a condensed Premier League schedule placing extra strain on players, this is not an especially alarming drop.

Liverpool's high turnovers per game are down to 8.9 from 10.7 last season, meaning they have swapped positions with Manchester City at the top of those rankings.

They remain second to City in terms of shot-ending high turnovers. Pep Guardiola's team have managed to maintain their level in this regard, averaging 2.2 high turnovers per game compared to 2.1 in 2019-20. Liverpool's per 90 drop is from 1.7 to 1.3.

Regarding pressed sequences per game, Klopp's men are holding steady as the best team in the league – 17.5 compared to 18.1 from the season gone.

They are also allowing slightly fewer passes per defensive action (PPDA) in the Premier League, with 10.1 in 2020-21 compared to 10.3. On this metric, possibly due to poor early-season form and some atypically cautious performances that followed, City have dropped from 10.1 to 11.4.

Creating and hustling

Of course, the Liverpool front three's work off the ball would not be so notable without them doing the business once it's at their feet.

Looking a little deeper than goals and assists data, Salah and Mane ranked in the Premier League's top 10 when it comes to involvement in open play sequences ending in a shot before the start of this midweek round.

Firmino came in 11th with 89 involvements, behind Mane on 100 (sixth) and Salah with 102 (fifth). Of those sequences to yield goals, Salah has featured in 12, compared to nine and six for Mane and Firmino respectively.

The Brazilian has suffered from some poor finishing at the end of his involvements. The cumulative xG for the sequences he played a part in is 12.3, slightly better than Mane (11.6) and Salah (10.8).

An Opta metric where Firmino certainly lives up to his reputation is the seven times he has started a period of possession that ended in a shot this term. That puts him joint seventh in the Premier League overall as the highest ranked striker in a category where Rodri, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and N'Golo Kante are among the high flyers – defensive midfielders whose primary role is winning the ball back to get their teams on the front foot.

The pain of Kane - the perfect hybrid

The temptation before Thursday might be to point towards Kane as the centre-forward Liverpool would love Firmino to be. The England captain's incredible alliance with Son demonstrates being a scorer or a provider is not an either/or equation.

Kane has 12 Premier League goals and has laid on 11 more. Firmino's best assist tally over the course of an entire top-flight season was eight en route to glory last time around.

Unflattering comparisons are easy to reach for but, as the numbers above demonstrate, Firmino and Liverpool's front three as a collective have not fallen too dramatically from the performance levels that made them the most feared attack in Europe.

Virgil van Dijk's injury, influential midfielders being deployed in defence in his absence and the knock-on in terms of both midfield balance and the effectiveness of attacking full-backs Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson look like more plausible explanations for Liverpool's malaise.

Even so, a fifth goal against Tottenham and a third consecutive winner in this fixture would be the best way to stop Klopp making another weary argument in Firmino's favour.

On a day when Donny van de Beek hoped to show why he deserves more minutes for Manchester United, up stepped Bruno Fernandes to show why that simply isn't happening.

The eye-catching selection of Van de Beek ahead of Fernandes for this FA Cup clash of giants at Old Trafford was all about "rotation", according to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

United's manager clearly felt his team could combat a faltering Liverpool team without their star man, albeit leaving him on the bench in case of emergency.

"Donny needs to be playing games as well and it's a big game for Donny to come into," Solskjaer told the BBC.

Van de Beek has not started a Premier League game since he was hauled off with United trailing at half-time at West Ham in early December, and he might not be starting any soon either given how this game transpired.

A 66th-minute switch of the Portuguese for the underwhelming Van de Beek proved pivotal, and the delightful free-kick from Fernandes that settled an absorbing game 3-2 in United's favour was one that had been conceived on Saturday.

"I think he stayed about 45 minutes after training yesterday shooting free-kicks, so I was quite confident that he was going to hit the target," Solskjaer said.

Solskjaer, the erstwhile supersub, knew the calibre of replacement that was up his sleeve, and the rotation worked in a roundabout way. Are we looking at more proof that United's once-maligned Norwegian boss is actually a tactical master?

Liverpool's season, meanwhile, takes another negative turn.

Donny fluffs his big chance

With a mere 18 passes and 23 touches, Van de Beek was peripheral in a midfield where Paul Pogba shone and Scott McTominay fought for every ball.

The former Ajax man had a glorious early chance to stamp his mark on the game when he burst into space on the right and looked sure to dart towards the penalty area, as Edinson Cavani waited for a pass in the centre.

But no. Van de Beek paused and decided to go backwards, and the chance was gone.

This game was a world away from the Anfield snore draw seven days previously in the Premier League, yet Van de Beek largely let it pass him by.

By the time Fernandes cracked his sublime winner into the right corner, Van de Beek must have been wondering when such an opportunity will arise again.

Salah shows he must start

Like Fernandes, Salah has seen his form and contribution questioned in recent weeks, and just as United's match-winner dispelled such criticism, so did Liverpool's main man.

After all the talk about front threes, and which of these sides had the most deadly attacking trio, Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp went with a two-man strikeforce, Salah and Roberto Firmino linking up and Sadio Mane on the bench.

Both Salah and Firmino had been substitutes on Thursday for the defeat to Burnley, but they were a combination that United struggled to contain at times here.

Salah struck twice, the first a sublime chip, and Firmino set up both. The Brazilian has now assisted Salah for 18 goals during their time together at Liverpool, the most any player has set up another during Klopp's reign.

Unlike Firmino and Mane, Salah has exceeded his expected goals (xG) in the Premier League this season, with eight non-penalty goals from an xG of 5.3, and if Liverpool are to resurrect their season, the bench is surely no place for the Egyptian.

Glorious Greenwood

Mason Greenwood has not scored in the Premier League since that West Ham game, when he helped United turn their half-time deficit around and earn a 3-1 victory.

Here he looked lively from the early stages, albeit with one too many lollipops and insufficient tasty final product until he cancelled out Salah's opener.

The way the 19-year-old ended an 10-game barren spell spoke volumes of his belief, with Marcus Rashford's sweeping pass over the Liverpool defence finding his wing twin on the right and allowing Greenwood to thump a low shot past Alisson.

With Rashford also on target, this was quite a day to savour for the hosts.

Manchester United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer left Bruno Fernandes out of his starting line-up for Sunday's FA Cup clash with Liverpool.

Fernandes, who has been United's shining light since arriving from Sporting CP almost 12 months ago, was only a substitute for the fourth-round game.

This season he has scored 15 goals and supplied nine assists in 28 games across all competitions from his advanced midfield role, but there have been questions asked about his form in recent weeks.

He has just one goal and no assists in four Premier League appearances since the turn of the year.

Into the United team went former Ajax midfielder Donny van de Beek as Solskjaer decided the game presented a chance to rotate his squad, making five changes to the side that won 2-1 at Fulham on Wednesday.

Solskjaer explained why Fernandes did not start, saying on BBC One: "It's rotation in the squad.

"Donny needs to be playing games as well and it's a big game for Donny to come into.

"He's done nothing wrong when he's been around the club so I'm looking forward to seeing him in there."

Premier League leaders United also brought in goalkeeper Dean Henderson, centre-back Victor Lindelof, midfielder Scott McTominay and forward Marcus Rashford, as David De Gea, Eric Bailly, Fred and Anthony Martial dropped out.

Liverpool also showed five changes as Jurgen Klopp looked for a response to Thursday's shock 1-0 home defeat to Burnley, which ended a 68-game unbeaten run at Anfield in the Premier League.

Teenage centre-back Rhys Williams came in for the absent Joel Matip, while James Milner and Curtis Jones were selected as Xherdan Shaqiri and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain dropped to the bench.

Sadio Mane and Divock Origi were also substitutes as Klopp gave starts to Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino, with the Old Trafford clash coming a week on from these two sides battling out a dreary goalless draw at Anfield in the league.

Liverpool are reportedly prioritising a new deal for Virgil van Dijk over Mohamed Salah, while they could be beaten to Dayot Upamecano by Manchester United.

Salah's future has been a talking point in recent weeks, although the forward is contracted until 2023.

Van Dijk also has an agreement at Anfield until 2023, but the injured defender is apparently Liverpool's focus.

 

TOP STORY – LIVERPOOL PRIORITISE VAN DIJK DEAL OVER SALAH

Liverpool are prioritising a new contract for Van Dijk over Salah, according to Eurosport.

Van Dijk, 29, is recovering from a serious knee injury and his absence has been felt by the Premier League champions.

Salah, meanwhile, has scored 13 goals in 18 league games this season, but in an interview with AS last month the 28-year-old refused to rule out a move to Real Madrid or Barcelona.

The report also says Liverpool may look at West Ham midfielder Declan Rice, with Georginio Wijnaldum set to leave as a free agent at the end of the campaign.

ROUND-UP

- With Van Dijk and Joe Gomez injured, Liverpool have been linked with a move for RB Leipzig defender Upamecano. But The Sun reports Manchester United are poised to sign the centre-back for £38million (€42.7m).

- Amid uncertainty over his future at Barcelona, Ousmane Dembele is being looked at by numerous European giants. Sport reports Chelsea, Manchester United, Juventus and Bayern Munich are monitoring the forward's situation. Dembele is out of contract in 2022 and the Catalan giants could sell him if he does not extend his deal.

- Frank Lampard is under enormous pressure at Chelsea as the Premier League side struggle for form. The Mirror reports Chelsea could turn to Leicester City manager Brendan Rodgers if they move on from Lampard.

- Yet to re-sign with Southampton with his contract expiring next year, Danny Ings is linked with a move. 90min reports Leicester City and Everton have joined the race for the forward, who has also been linked to Tottenham.

Jurgen Klopp insisted talk about Liverpool star Mohamed Salah's contract would not be a distraction.

Salah has a deal at Anfield until 2023, but his future has become a talking point after he refused to rule out a move to Real Madrid or Barcelona in an interview with AS last month.

While Liverpool have struggled for consistency and sit fourth in the Premier League, Salah has netted 13 times to be the top goalscorer in the competition.

Ahead of Sunday's FA Cup clash against Manchester United, Klopp said he had no doubt about Salah's focus despite talk about his future.

"It's not that [players] go out and [volunteer] to talk about the things we think are important. It's pretty rare that that happens," the Liverpool manager told reporters.

"We get asked questions and then we answer and that's then the story and it always sounds like we started the conversation.

"But in Mo's case it's not like that, so no, I don't think it will distract the season."

While Salah is the top goalscorer in the Premier League with 13, five of those have come from the penalty spot.

But his big chance conversion (64.3 per cent) is the highest it has been since he joined Liverpool from Roma in 2017.

However, his dribbles success rate (39) is the lowest since he arrived at Anfield.

Liverpool have won just one of their past six games ahead of their trip to Old Trafford to face rivals United.

After thrashing Crystal Palace 7-0 on December 19, Liverpool were six points clear at the Premier League summit. 

Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah were all on target in the clinical rout at Selhurst Park, after which Jurgen Klopp said: "It was really difficult to play against us."

The reigning champions had seemingly found top gear again. 

Fast forward to January 21 and, following a stunning 1-0 loss to Burnley at Anfield, Liverpool were left to wonder just where it had all gone so badly wrong.  

For a fourth successive outing in the league they had failed to score, while the shock result sees them stuck in fourth position in the table, six points behind leaders Manchester United. 

Never mind moving through the gears: the wheels have well and truly come off. 

BARNES HARMS AILING CHAMPIONS

Ashley Barnes' penalty condemned the Reds to a first home defeat in the league since April 23, 2017. It had been three years and 273 days since former Liverpool player Christian Benteke struck twice for Palace in a 2-1 triumph. 

The run of 68 games unbeaten was the second longest in English top-flight history. During the streak, there were 55 wins, 176 goals scored and 36 clean sheets. A total of 43 players were used, too.

Joel Matip, Georginio Wijnaldum, Firmino and Divock Origi were also in the starting XI that were beaten by Palace, managed by Sam Allardyce, nearly four years ago, while Trent Alexander-Arnold came on as a late substitute.


GOAL-SHY LIVERPOOL MISS CAPTAIN

Since Mane's early strike in the 1-1 draw against West Brom on December 27, Liverpool have registered 87 shots in the Premier League without managing to find the net. Eighty. Seven. Shots.

It was not for a lack of trying against Burnley, admittedly. They had 27 total attempts, their most in a single league match without scoring since April 2013 versus Reading (28).  

The absence of Jordan Henderson did not help. Even prior to kick-off, Liverpool had lost more of their 11 Premier League games without their captain (3) than they had in 45 games with him (2) since the start of last season.

KLOPP STREAK CAUSES CONCERN

This is not yet uncharted territory for Klopp at Liverpool; he previously went five league games without a win between January and February in 2017. 

That barren run four years ago included fixtures against Sunderland and Hull City – clubs now in the third tier of English football – and a home defeat to current Championship side Swansea City, who were celebrating at Anfield thanks to goals from Fernando Llorente (two) and Gylfi Sigurdsson.

However, Klopp has never previously gone four without a goal during his Reds tenure. The previous time that happened in his coaching career was while in charge of Mainz, who suffered a drought in the Bundesliga late in 2006.


POPE SAVES ALL AS REDS PAY THE PENALTY

Nick Pope excelled when Burnley ended Liverpool's 100 per cent home record in their title-winning campaign – and the goalkeeper was once again in outstanding form on Merseyside.

The England international made six saves to keep a clean sheet, having produced eight in his side's 1-1 draw in July at the same ground. Since the start of the 2019-20 season, no keeper has made more saves against a single opponent in the Premier League than Pope against Liverpool (19).

Barnes' penalty was the second spot-kick Liverpool have conceded at home this season too – they had only given up two penalty goals at Anfield under Klopp before 2020-21.

There is plenty for the German to ponder, then. While retaining the trophy is far from out of reach, what appeared to be a temporary blip is in danger of turning into a full-blown crisis.

Liverpool have been handed a boost by the return of Joel Matip for their meeting with Burnley, but Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino must settle for a place on the bench.

A run of four Premier League games without a win has seen the Reds drop down to fourth, six points behind leaders Manchester United, ahead of Thursday's clash at Anfield.

Jurgen Klopp's side have scored just once in that run and have not managed a goal in any of their last three outings.

Their talisman Salah has summed up their struggles, with the Egypt star having failed to score in any of his last four league appearances – his current drought lasting 365 minutes.

Only once has Salah gone longer without a goal for Liverpool and the 28-year-old has been rotated out by Klopp, alongside fellow forward Firmino.

Since Salah joined Liverpool in 2017, they have won four of their five Premier League games when both he and Firmino have been absent from the starting XI, including two wins over Burnley.

Sadio Mane is the only member of Liverpool's first-choice front three to start, with Divock Origi and Xherdan Shaqiri named alongside the Senegal forward.

Along with Firmino, Mane has netted four times in his last four league appearances against Burnley.

Further back, Jordan Henderson misses out through what Liverpool described as a "minor fitness issue", with Georginio Wijnaldum named as captain.

Under Klopp, Liverpool's league win rate without Henderson featuring is 56 per cent, down from 66 when the England international plays.

The main positive for the Reds comes at the back, with Matip – who went off injured in a 1-1 draw with West Brom on December 27 – joining Fabinho in the centre of defence.

Matip and Fabinho will be up against Ashley Barnes and Chris Wood, who has only played more games (seven) and minutes (435) against Southampton without scoring in the Premier League than he has against Liverpool (six games, 400 minutes).

Indeed, Burnley have failed to score in six of their last seven away Premier League fixtures, with their only goal in this run an own goal from Arsenal's Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and the Clarets have lost their last two matches.

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