Liverpool may have given the Premier League table a familiar look by going level with the leaders, but nothing at Anfield dispelled the idea this season will be one of chaotic unpredictability.
Never have the boundaries between those in the bottom three and those considered title favourites been so blurred. The champions were pushed to their limit by Sheffield United - Jurgen Klopp’s side victorious thanks to Diogo Jota’s second half header - yet the howls of relief from players and staff at full-time underlined this was a triumph of fortitude.
Liverpool came from a goal down, overcame their notable absentees and ensured the contentious refereeing calls were not number one of the agenda for a consecutive weekend.
Until Roberto Firmino equalised a controversial penalty decision, dispatched by Sander Berge after nine minutes, it seemed another exchange of emails with referee chief Mike Riley was on the to-do list.
When fans are finally allowed back into football stadiums, the Premier League might as well advertise ‘video assistant controversy’ on the match ticket.
What an inflammatory mess they have created, every game played amid the ceaseless fear we cannot be sure what we are seeing. Now our emotions need a delay function.
Few sides have suffered from technical malfunctions as Sheffield United in the last 18 months. Amid that backstory, no-one will begrudge Chris Wilder and his side the dubious call which gifted his side the lead when Fabinho’s challenge on Oli McBurnie was given the Stockley Park treatment.
The makeshift centre-back was adjudged to have fouled the striker inside the box rather than on its perimeter. The replay was inconclusive on two fronts, suggesting the Brazilian got the ball anyway. The VAR seemed to regard that a trivial aside when ordering Mike Dean to point to the spot. Berge accepted the invitation to beat Alisson Becker.
“No foul,” said Klopp. “It is now game number six and in three of them at the wrong end of these decisions. We don’t want advantage, we just do not want a disadvantage.”
Wilder, meanwhile, had a different take. “I thought it was a penalty and I have been informed there might have been another couple,” said the Sheffield United coach.
For the next 30 minutes United warranted their advantage. They felt they should have had more before Liverpool regained composure.
Klopp had a couple of surprises in his line-up, one of which was the inclusion of Jota for his first Premier League start for his new club. Not that the Portugal international was unworthy of selection. It was more that none of the famed front three made way.
Not since Philippe Coutinho roamed behind Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane have Liverpool looked so bold. Nor have they seemed so imbalanced.
In those days, Liverpool home games tended to resemble a cavalry charge. There has been more structure in the last two years, a midfield three offering tactical discipline to enable Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson to act as wingers.
If this was Klopp’s first major concession in the wake of Virgil Van Dijk’s injury, facilitating another attacker to outscore whoever his side meets, it will probably be a short-term measure.
For a while, the formation seemed more 4-2-4, the midfield outnumbered, while McBurnie won every aerial and physical challenge with Joe Gomez. Unlike against Ajax, Fabinho resembled a makeshift centre-back rather than accomplished one.
Fortunately, Liverpool could at least call upon Alisson again.
Such is Alisson’s reassuring presence, there would have been a compelling case for including him even if his shoulder was still in a sling. Whether he was 100 percent ready or not, one suspects Klopp would have dragged his doctor to the release papers declaring him ready.
Alisson’s authority was needed as he pushed aside Ben Osborn’s volley before Liverpool equalised four minutes before half-time. Jordan Henderson’s cross was met by Mane’s header, and Arron Ramsdale's save dropped kindly to Firmino for a tap-in.
Momentum gradually shifted after that. Salah was denied by another VAR call on 63 minutes, a gorgeous control and finish struck off. It did not matter because a minute later Jota headed past Ramsdale from Mane’s cross.
Liverpool never looked as secure as they would have been with you-know-who, but it already felt like one of those wins that might carry extra weight as the season progresses.
Providing normality returns, of course. On the basis of the first six games, don’t bet on it.
And that's all the reaction from me
But read Chris Bascombe's match report for a full recap of this evening's events.
Big night for the new signing
2 - Diogo Jota is the first player to score in his first two home appearances for Liverpool in the Premier League since Sadio Mané in September 2016. Settled. #LIVSHU
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) October 24, 2020
Sheffield United can feel a little hard done by
They deserved at least a point tonight. However, they did not make enough clear chances while Liverpool were clinical.
FULL TIME: Liverpool 2 Sheffield United 1
Alisson sends the ball long, ticking vital seconds off the clock. Chance missed! United get the ball into the Liverpool half and Burke hits his shot just over the bar!
Liverpool hold on.
90 min: Liverpool 2 Sheffield United 1
United send a ball in behind and Gomez beats Berge to the ball, who fouls the England defender.
There are three minutes of added time.
88 min: Liverpool 2 Sheffield United 1
Mane works a shot from the left but he cannot find a target. Ramsdale hoofs it long, but possession is seized by the home side.
85 min: Liverpool 2 Sheffield United 1
Egan lumps the ball forward to McBurnie who wins it. United move the play left but Alexander-Arnold puts it out of play. A cross then comes in from the right but Liverpool just about hack it away. It is becoming frantic at the back.
Wijnaldum breaks forward and is brought down by Berge, who is booked for the professional foul.
82 min: Liverpool 2 Sheffield United 1
Wijnaldum breaks down the right, passing to Salah. He turns Egan in the box, dinking the ball over Ramsdale but it hits the post! That was pure class. Unlucky.
At the other end, Ampadu finds space on the edge of the box but fires his shot well over the bar. Goal scorer Jota is coming off for Milner. Minamino is also on, for Firmino.
80 min: Liverpool 2 Sheffield United 1
Fabinho makes an important tackle in his own box as Berge looked to make room to shoot. Liverpool counter but Salah's cross is well blocked.
77 min: Liverpool 2 Sheffield United 1
McGoldrick is on for Lundstram. The ball falls to him in the box and he drives a half-volley just over the bar. That was close! What an introduction that would have been.
74 min: Liverpool 2 Sheffield United 1
Henderson attempts a one-two on the edge of the Sheffield United box. The pass is intercepted and United counter. McBurnie holds the ball up, allowing his side to move forward in numbers.
Berge breaks into the box, passing to Stevens who fires a shot that forces a save from Alisson.
Much better from the away side.
71 min: Liverpool 2 Sheffield United 1
United mount an attack down the left but Fabinho breaks up the play. At the other end, Salah finds some room on the edge of the box but he chooses to pass to Robertson instead of shooting which allows the attack to be halted.
68 min: Liverpool 2 Sheffield United 1
Liverpool are on the attack once more. This time Alexander-Arnold providing the dangerous cross. Klopp's side win successive corners, but nothing comes of them.
GOOOOOOAAAAAAL! Jota Liverpool 2 Sheffield United 1
Mane whips in a ball with his left and Jota rises highest to nod it home. Top header from the new signing. Liverpool are, somehow, in front!
GOAL RULED OUT!
Alexander-Arnold picks out Salah with deft ball over the top. Salah takes it down and pokes it past Ramsdale. Classy finish. Was he offside?
It is very close. VAR is having a look and rules it out. Salah was not offside by a lot, but it was clear.
61 min: Liverpool 1 Sheffield United 1
Mane fouls Ampadu, allowing Sheffield United to send the ball deep into the Liverpool half. They win a throw-in, allowing an attack to be developed down the right. A cross is chipped in towards Burke but it is headed away. The ball then comes to Burke on the left who coasts past Fabinho, firing a low shot at Alisson who does well to save it.
58 min: Liverpool 1 Sheffield United 1
The tempo has dropped a touch since the frantic opening to this half. Sheffield United happy enough to slow it down, limiting Liverpool's counter-attack opportunities.
55 min: Liverpool 1 Sheffield United 1
Brewster is coming off, replaced by Burke. He has been a bit quiet tonight on his return to Anfield.
52 min: Liverpool 1 Sheffield United 1
Jota bursts down the left hand side, losing the ball after a shoulder to shoulder collision.
Sheffield United look to attack down the left but the ball is lost, allowing Salah to break. He finds Henderson who passes it on to Mane. Alexander-Arnold then whips in a cross but it is headed behind for a corner. They take it quickly, Salah has a chance to shoot but fails to pull the trigger.
49 min: Liverpool 1 Sheffield United 1
A cross from United is headed out to the edge of the box. Berge strikes it and the ball is deflected out for a corner. The subsequent ball into the box is headed away and Liverpool counter. Mane fires in a low cross but it is well defended.
47 min: Liverpool 1 Sheffield United 1
Liverpool start the half brightly, attacking with plenty of numbers. Baldock wins the ball for his side and is then fouled by Mane.
Here we go!
Liverpool get us restarted
Sheffield United have been the better side, but...
as champions do, Liverpool are still level anyway.
HALF TIME: Liverpool 1 Sheffield United 1
Robertson slides in Jota down the left side of the box but his cross is blocked. Sheffield United counter, but are forced to turn back by good Liverpool pressure.
45 min: Liverpool 1 Sheffield United 1
Liverpool work their way forward before being rebuffed. Three minutes of added time.
43 min: Liverpool 1 Sheffield United 1
The away side will be disappointed to be level after an impressive first-half showing. Game on!
GOOOOOOAAAAAAL! Firmino Liverpool 1 Sheffield United 1
Henderson whips in a perfect cross. Mane heads it at Ramsdale who makes a sharp save. The ball falls at the feet of Firmino who taps it into the empty net.
They did not really deserve that... but Liverpool will take it!
39 min: Liverpool 0 Sheffield United 1
Now Berge goes down in the box under pressure. That is the fourth time there has been a genuine appeal for a penalty for Sheffield United, only one given so far.
The replay shows Jota tripped Berge, albeit the touch was minimal. VAR not interested in overturning the decision.
36 min: Liverpool 0 Sheffield United 1
Salah makes a good run in behind but Egan just gets back to block his shot. The corner falls to Fabinho who plants the ball into the empty stands.
At the other end, McBurnie bursts forward, going down in the box but no decision is made. Looked a little soft to me.
33 min: Liverpool 0 Sheffield United 1
Firmino has been very quiet so far, marked out of the game by United.
Brewster wins a header but it does not find a member of his new team. Liverpool resume passing the ball around the back.
About time, really
37 - Sander Berge's penalty was the first Liverpool have faced at Anfield in 37 Premier League games, since a 0-0 draw with Manchester City in October 2018. Disturbance. #LIVSHU
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) October 24, 2020
30 min: Liverpool 0 Sheffield United 1
Liverpool finally control possession for a little while, spreading the play around the back four. Alexander-Arnold then switches the play to Robertson. He passes to Gomez who is almost dispossessed by McBurnie. The defender gets back to the ball he miscontrolled just in time.
The homes side are forced all the way back to Alisson.
27 min: Liverpool 0 Sheffield United 1
Lundstram puts a free kick into the box and Alisson comes out to punch it away. This impressive spell from Chris Wilder's side continues.
24 min: Liverpool 0 Sheffield United 1
Liverpool survive the corner. They have been on the back foot for the past few minutes, United looking impressive.
Baldock picks out Osborn at the back post who nails a volley straight at Alisson, forcing him to make a solid save. Another chance missed for the away side!
22 min: Liverpool 0 Sheffield United 1
Could we have another Sheffield United penalty? Baldock fires in a cross first time and it is blocked. All the away players appeal immediately. VAR will have a look. Nothing comes of it.
As the play continues, the ball comes to McBurnie who sends a good chance well wide from the left side of the box. It ended up being a cross-shot.
Berge then wins a corner.
19 min: Liverpool 0 Sheffield United 1
Berge plays it right to Baldock who is just dispossessed at the crucial moment. Liverpool counter, Jota is brought down this time. Another free kick.
Alexander-Arnold puts it into a dangerous area. Basham's clearance only finds Wijnaldum. The midfielder's shot is well over the bar, however.
15 min: Liverpool 0 Sheffield United 1
Liverpool have looked good thus far. Klopp would have been happy with the start, until the penalty that is.
Liverpool win a free kick in a dangerous crossing position. Robertson whips it in but the ball is headed clear.
GOOOOOOOAAAAAAL! (Berge) Liverpool 0 Sheffield United 1
Berge steps up to face to Alisson. He sends the keeper the wrong way, rolling the ball into the right corner.
What a start from Sheffield United!
Big moment. McBurnie is fould by Fabinho - the only question is penalty or free kick? It is right on the edge of the box.
VAR is looking. It is a penalty!
9 min: Liverpool 0 Sheffield United 0
Salah breaks into the box from the right hand side. He cuts onto his left but is dispossessed by Stevens. Liverpool come once more, Fabinho switching the play out to Alexander-Arnold.
Nothing comes from the attack. Sheffield United are defending very deep and proving hard to breakdown so far.
7 min: Liverpool 0 Sheffield United 0
McBurnie is proving a handful up front. Lundstram attempts a cross from the left but Henderson blocks it.
Sheffield United then win a corner. Alisson punches it away. A promising start from both sides.
4 min: Liverpool 0 Sheffield United 0
Lundstram is booked for a poor tackle on Alexander-Arnold. The right back shoots from the free kick on half-way and almost catches Ramsdale off his line. The keeper gets back to tip it over the bar for a corner. Decent effort!
The Blades clear.
2 min: Liverpool 0 Sheffield United 0
The away side start brightly, firing a promising cross into the box but it is well cleared. Liverpool then send it long.
Liverpool break down the left. Robertson unleashes Mane who beats Ramsdale to the ball. He slides it past the keeper but Egan gets back to beat Salah to the ball, just yards from the goal.
Here we go!
Sheffield United get us underway.
The players are out onto the pitch
Not long until kick-off now.
Jurgen Klopp on facing Rhian Brewster:
"He is a natural finisher. He did it a lot of times against us in training. We need to cut off the passes to him."
Andy Robertson brings up his 100th Premier League appearance for Liverpool tonight. What a signing he has been
Alisson looks delighted to be back out there tonight...
Replacing the irreplaceable: How can Liverpool cope after losing Virgil van Dijk?
Klopp has many talents as a coach, but working a miracle for eight months with only two senior centre-halves is a stretch which may be beyond even his considerable coaching talent and powers of positive thinking.
Not a bad home record, then
61 - Liverpool are unbeaten in their last 61 Premier League home games, winning 27 of their last 28 at Anfield. They’ve netted 162 goals in these 61 games (2.7 per game), while conceding just 40 in return (0.7 per game). Fortress. #LIVSHU pic.twitter.com/qRhtrA8KZI
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) October 24, 2020
Sheffield United have struggled so far this season
The Blades have only picked up one point from five matches, although admittedly that point came last time out against Fulham.
The pressure is mounting, given their poor end to last season. Can Sheffield United get some momentum into their campaign tonight?
Want to learn some more about Rhian Brewster?
Read this interview from Mike McGrath with the striker: 'I was a little boy at the start and I’ve grown into a young man'
What a match for Brewster to make his full debut! Odds on him scoring tonight...
A full Blades debut for Rhian. 🤝 pic.twitter.com/TmDOK3Q22d
— Sheffield United (@SheffieldUnited) October 24, 2020
Alisson is back in goal for Liverpool, a massive boost considering the injury to Virgil van Dijk. Fabinho continues at centre-half while Diogo Jota starts alongside the normal front three of Mane, Salah and Firmino.
For Sheffield United, the big news is that Rhian Brewster starts against his former club.
Team news is in !
📋 Tonight's team news...
Follow #LIVSHU live in our 𝑀𝑎𝑡𝑐ℎ 𝐶𝑒𝑛𝑡𝑟𝑒 📲
— Liverpool FC (@LFC) October 24, 2020
Your Blades starting XI. 🤝
Rhian Brewster & Ethan Ampadu start. John Egan continues as skipper. ©️ pic.twitter.com/svfiIK8oW5
— Sheffield United (@SheffieldUnited) October 24, 2020
Good evening, can Liverpool cope without Virgil van Dijk? Jordan Henderson certainly thinks so
Liverpool have the quality in their squad to deal with the absence through injury of influential centre back Virgil van Dijk, said skipper Jordan Henderson.
Defender Van Dijk damaged knee ligaments after a tackle by Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford in the Merseyside derby at Goodison Park last Saturday.
Writing in Liverpool's matchday programme for Saturday's Premier League game against Sheffield United, Henderson said any team in the world would miss the Dutchman but the champions must not make it a bigger issue than it needs to be.
"I look at the players we have who can play that position and I wouldn't swap them for anyone else. Joe Gomez, Joel Matip and Fabinho are international-quality players who have produced for us as a team time and time again," Henderson wrote.
"Nat Phillips is nearly back to full fitness and has the making to be a good centre half. Rhys Williams has impressed me with his attitude and mentality. Billy Koumetio and Sepp van den Berg likewise. All learning in the best environment there is.
"Are any of them Virgil van Dijk? No... but they don't need to be. They just need to be themselves and give everything they have for this club, be it in training or when called upon in games. The rest of us have to be there to help."
Reports in the media have said Van Dijk could be out for up to seven months, but Henderson was more hopeful.
"Virgil will back with us in no time at all. Because he's such an extraordinary professional I know he'll come back not just as good but better," Henderson added.
"When he came to Melwood on Tuesday, he just radiated positivity. And it's on us to take his lead and only think about the positive impact we can have."