Unbeaten Premier League leaders Liverpool made it a full year without losing in the top flight as Sheffield United were brushed aside at Anfield.
A slice of good fortune enabled the Reds to take an early lead – George Baldock’s slip allowing Andy Robertson to set up Mohamed Salah for a simple close-range finish in just the fourth minute.
But there was nothing fortuitous about their win, which Sadio Mane sealed, finishing at the second attempt after being played in by Salah.
It maintains the Reds’ 13-point advantage at the top of the division after nearest rivals Leicester and Manchester City both won on New Year’s Day.
Jurgen Klopp’s side has dropped just two points from a possible 60 this season.
For Chris Wilder’s side, this was a second successive defeat, but they remain firmly in credit from the first half of their league campaign and sit eighth in the table, just two points off fifth.
Liverpool’s 18th consecutive league win and 51st top-flight encounter without defeat in a row at Anfield was another showcase for a side working to near maximum capacity.
Despite Klopp labelling as “criminal” a festive fixture schedule that has seen his side play six games in 17 days, the German kept his team changes to a minimum.
He did have to make a late alteration, bringing James Milner in for the man he originally drafted into the side, Naby Keita, who injured himself in the warm-up, but it made little discernible difference.
In fact, Milner was superb as one-third of a brilliant midfield unit, along with Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum.
Their work-rate, movement and accuracy of passing provided the platform, with Virgil van Dijk alert and efficient on the rare occasions Sheffield United were allowed a kick in the Liverpool half.
Salah scored one, but he would have had more but for the combination of some excellent reflex saves from Dean Henderson and the woodwork – the Egyptian’s chipped second-half cross floating past everyone and hitting the inside of the post.
Roberto Firmino went close to his first Anfield goal since March with a curling effort just past the post and should have got it later in the second half, but failed to connect with Trent Alexander-Arnold’s low cross from point-blank range.
In the end, though, two was more than enough to seal another win and move another step closer to their ultimate goal.
Having achieved an ‘Invincibles’ year, Liverpool still has a long way to go to match the ‘Invincibles’ season achieved by Arsenal in 2003-04.
However, it would now take an implosion of unprecedented proportions to deny the Reds a first top-flight title in 30 years.
Sheffield United enjoyed a stellar 2019 of their own, in which they achieved promotion back to England’s top division for the first time since 2007 before exceeding expectation to end the year firmly embedded in the top half of the table.
Such has been their form under Chris Wilder only three sides in the country had a superior points-per-game record across 2019 – the current Premier League leaders, the top-flight’s reigning champions Manchester City and West Brom, who presently have the joint-most points in the Championship.
This is the first time they have suffered back-to-back defeats under Wilder since the start of last season and they have come at the two toughest grounds to visit in the country – Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium and Anfield.
Wilder prepared his team for Thursday night’s daunting match with a final practice session on Stanley Park, the public park next to Anfield, which included one moment when a dog joined them and urinated on one of their cones.
As the club’s official Twitter account put it: “No airs and graces, just hard work.”
There is a lot more to this Sheffield United side than graft, although they were given only fleeting opportunities to demonstrate this at Anfield.
United asked more questions of the Reds than most sides this season when they met at Bramall Lane in September, an error from goalkeeper Henderson leading to the game’s only goal from Wijnaldum.
They gave a solid account of themselves here, where there is no shame in defeat – 17 sides have directly preceded them with the same fate, some wilting a lot more readily than the Blades.
David McGoldrick has yet to score this season, but he went close soon after Liverpool’s opener with an effort that Alisson had to tip over.
And John Lundstram had the ball in the net, but long after an offside flag had already ruled any potential goal out.
They should also have had at least a consolation goal near the end, but somehow substitute Oliver McBurnie failed to poke the ball in from close range at the back post from a low cross.
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Source – BBC