The Premier League is in for a treat on the evidence of Leeds’ first top flight appearance for 5,964 days but Marcelo Bielsa is not one for plaudits. It was points he wanted at Liverpool and one was firmly within his team’s grasp until Rodrigo, the club’s £30m record signing, foolishly gifted the champions an 88th-minute penalty at Anfield. “At this level errors equal goals,” Bielsa lamented. Mohamed Salah accepted the invitation to complete an opening day hat-trick and Liverpool were up and running, just about.
Leeds levelled three times in an enthralling duel with Jürgen Klopp’s team, who were indebted to Salah’s precision on an evening of uncharacteristic sluggishness in defence. The Egypt international scored on the opening day for the fourth season in succession, the first Liverpool player to do so, and registered the club’s first opening day hat-trick since John Aldridge in 1988-89. He should not have been given the chance, however.
Rodrigo was bought from Valencia and brought on at Anfield for his prowess in the opposition penalty area. He proved a calamity inside his own, felling Fabinho with a needless lunge after the Leeds defence had repelled another Liverpool attack and inviting Salah to beat goalkeeper Illan Meslier from the spot for a second time. A fourth Leeds equaliser was asking too much, but notice has been served of their intent and abilities this season all the same. Few sides possess Liverpool’s capacity for finding a way to win irrespective of circumstance and it required all of their focus, patience and belligerence to prevail.
“Leeds are special,” said Klopp. “The way they play, it is just uncomfortable. If you don’t respect the opponent they will kill you but I really liked the attitude of my team today. We are still a fighting unit. They just don’t stop.”
As on the night of Liverpool’s coronation as champions just over seven weeks ago, and more so than during restart, the absence of a crowd on the opening day at Anfield and from one of the grand fixtures of English football was sorely felt. This place would have been a cauldron for a meeting of last season’s Premier League and Championship champions. The two of them offered compensation in the form of a wildly entertaining contest.
Klopp had warned the newcomers they were in for a more intense encounter than anything experienced last season. Liverpool delivered immediately. Leeds barely touched the ball in the opening exchanges, an unusual situation under Bielsa, and were behind within four minutes. Controversially so too, as the handball for which referee Michael Oliver awarded the first penalty could have been overturned under the new interpretation of the rule. Robin Koch clearly had his arm outside the “body line” when Salah’s shot struck him but the ball was deflected up onto his arm off his thigh. Oliver thought otherwise, and Salah slammed the resulting spot-kick down the middle of Meslier’s goal.
The reaction of Bielsa’s players was hugely impressive. Leeds confidently took the game to Liverpool and were back on level terms thanks to an excellent finish from Jack Harrison. Kalvin Phillips, fresh from making his England debut in Denmark, sprayed a delightful pass out to Harrison on the left. The winger cut inside Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joe Gomez too easily before beating Alisson from the edge of the area.
The entertainment had only just begun. Sadio Mané executed a brilliant chip over Meslier from 35 yards only for an offside decision against Andy Robertson to cancel out the effort. Moments later Robertson swept a corner into the Leeds area and Virgil van Dijk, having lost his marker Koch, restored the champions’ advantage with a thumping header.
Leeds came back again. Patrick Bamford was as surprised as anyone to profit from a mistake by Van Dijk who, attempting to flick Stuart Dallas’s searching ball out to his left-back, succeeded in finding the striker instead. Bamford, having missed an earlier chance by attempting to round Alisson, learned his lesson and lifted a first time finish over the exposed Liverpool goalkeeper.
Now Liverpool responded swiftly. Pascal Struijk headed a Robertson free-kick back into dangerous territory inside his own area where Salah, having backed off, drove an unstoppable shot into Meslier’s top left-hand corner. The hosts exerted more control in the second half and created several opportunities to punish a stretched and at times chaotic visiting defence. Meslier saved well from Georginio Wijnaldum, Van Dijk headed over from an Alexander-Arnold corner and Mané was badly off target when released by Roberto Firmino.
Leeds thought they had levelled again when Alexander-Arnold headed into his own net attempting to clear Harrison’s lob. He was spared by an offside flag, although there was no disputing the third when it did arrive. Liverpool lost possession from the right-back’s throw-in and Leeds pounced superbly. Mateusz Klich swept play out to Helder Costa and darted into the area where the return pass arrived perfectly. Klich’s control was pristine, his first time finish even better, and Alisson had no chance against the midfielder’s volley.
Van Dijk was denied a second when he converted Alexander-Arnold’s corner only for Oliver to punish Curtis Jones for a trip on Koch as they jostled for position. But Rodrigo would gift Salah the final word.