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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Darwin Nunez proves status as Liverpool’s man of massive moments to keep Reds’ title fight intact

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Football

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Just seconds from the end, Darwin Nunez produced one of those uproarious moments that you might usually say was a sign of where the title is going. The evidence of this season, however, suggests it’s going to need many more of them.

Perhaps the greatest significance of this 99th-minute 1-0 win over Nottingham Forest, beyond the vintage late header of such a classic run-in victory, was that Jurgen Klopp’s side kept persevering despite so many absences. They have kept this form going, and still have a number of stars to come back.

The return of a player who is definitely ascending to that kind of level for supporters was the crucial difference here.

Nunez might still be a source of debate for many other people in football, but there is no doubt the Liverpool fans love him, or that he is clearly now invaluable for these moments. This 99th-minute header kept a tone that was set with that double against Newcastle United back in August.

He didn’t just offer the winner, either. He offered impetus that had been missing. This willingness is one of Nunez’s great qualities.

It was difficult not to have some sympathy for Forest in those circumstances, although that wasn’t the emotion owner Evangelos Marinakis felt as he raged against the referee for the added time. They had defended brilliantly. They were well set up. They certainly felt some other decisions should go their way. It is always the risk of Nuno Espirito Santo’s football, though. You’re basically inviting the play to go one way.

It certainly produced one of those classic run-in crescendos where one goal suddenly came under all manner of pressure, the attacking team just looking to keep the ball alive.

It certainly felt alive by the time Alexis Mac Allister swerved that late cross in. There was Nunez to nod it past Matz Sels. The touch was almost innocuous despite its substantial meaning. Maybe above all, Liverpool look to have now come through this run of absences mostly unblemished – something all the more crucial with Manchester City up next at Anfield in the league.

Nunez rises to score late on

(Mike Egerton/PA)

Given the number of players Liverpool are missing, it’s obvious they’re just not going to be as coherent or well linked as at their best. Nuno had evidently identified some holes in this as there were a lot of moments in the first half when Forest looked like they were on the brink of breaking through.

There was always that suggestion Liverpool could be got at, as Virgil Van Dijk tried to hold it together. That couldn’t last.

On the half-hour, Anthony Elanga was put clean through for what looked a certain goal. This was another of those moments where Liverpool didn’t quite feel the cost of a major absence, though – Caoimhin Kelleher continued his fine deputising for Alisson. The strong feet for the save was good enough but almost more impressive was how Kelleher shaped his body on coming out to make Elanga second-guess himself. It was conspicuous how the blaze through at goal with the forward’s pace contrasted with the way he slowed and stopped when it came to the finish. Kelleher made it difficult for Elanga, and easier for himself.

Liverpool were no more coherent at the other end. It was like they were mostly dependent on Luis Diaz producing some electricity to take them through Nuno’s typically well-drilled defence. His sheer force almost saw him make his way through just before half time, but Sels did well to block the angle.

It was an indication of how the game was inevitably going to evolve into a distinctive pattern. Liverpool were going to gradually take more of the ball and take the match much higher up the pitch. Forest were going to recede in the way Nuno teams can do, although with the considerable weapon of so much pace up front.

That made Liverpool constantly conscious of leaving too much space in behind, and it was hard not to think it just sapped some of their impetus. Warning came in moments like Elanga – again – narrowly side-footing past Kelleher’s post on the volley. It made it less of a surprise that Klopp eventually introduced Nunez, if even just to bring the game further up the pitch.

Nunez went close with an earlier effort

(Liverpool FC via Getty)

It worked, but there was still a wait.

Late in stoppage time, the Uruguayan skipped around two challenges and sized up a fearsome shot… only for Ryan Yates to match the force with a brilliant block. It was leadership from the captain that is exactly what you want in a team that may end up fighting relegation.

Moments later, Nunez’s presence forced Murillo into a desperate header that the excellent Sels had to claw away.

It was a warning. There was little Sels or Forest could do, though. Liverpool had a momentum of their own. Nunez had another moment of his own. It sums up this season, though, they will likely need many more.

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