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Liverpool see off Watford to keep heat on Manchester City at top of table

Diogo Jota’s 20th goal of the season in the first half was followed by a late Fabinho penalty.

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Diogo Jota opened the scoring (Peter Byrne/PA)

Diogo Jota opened the scoring (Peter Byrne/PA)

Diogo Jota opened the scoring (Peter Byrne/PA)

Liverpool’s first appearance at the top of the Premier League since September may have lasted only a couple of hours, but their 2-0 win over Watford was enough to send a message to Manchester City.

Diogo Jota’s 20th goal of the season in the first half was followed by a late Fabinho penalty in Saturday’s early kick-off as the 14-point deficit in January was briefly turned into a two-point advantage before City re-established their slender lead with victory at Burnley.

It means the pair will meet at the Etihad Stadium next Sunday for their highly-anticipated showdown separated by just a point.

Victory over Watford proved more difficult than it needed to be for the Reds but was essential to maintain the pressure at the top of the table.

A fit-again Trent Alexander-Arnold, watching from the bench, could not have failed to be impressed not necessarily by their first goal – which has become quite commonplace now for Jota – but with the quality of the assist.

His stand-in Joe Gomez, making only his second Premier League start of the season, produced a cross of which his England team-mate would have been proud, whipped into the near post in a space between centre-half and right-back.

Jota does not need much of an invitation to get on the end of such gifts, having scored more Premier League headers (seven) than anyone since joining Liverpool in September 2020.

Only team-mate Mohamed Salah (20) has scored more in the top flight than the Portugal international’s 14, which secured a 10th successive home win for only the ninth time in the club’s history.

Manager Jurgen Klopp had called for players and fans to be at their best for a traditionally difficult early Saturday kick-off but it was the visitors who had the better early chances, with Ismaila Sarr volleying over, Cucho Hernandez flicking a header straight at Alisson Becker and Juraj Kucka also being denied one-on-one with the goalkeeper.

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Diogo Jota put Liverpool in front (Peter Byrne/PA)

Diogo Jota put Liverpool in front (Peter Byrne/PA)

Diogo Jota put Liverpool in front (Peter Byrne/PA)

But moments after Alisson had closed down the angle to block Kucka’s effort from a counter-attack Liverpool were ahead.

Thiago Alcantara, whose range of passing and clever vision ran the show, and Jordan Henderson combined to pick out Gomez wide on the touchline.

Primarily a centre-back who can play on the right, the 24-year-old, who due to the form of a defence which has conceded just seven Premier League goals at home has been limited to only 15 appearances, picked his spot.

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Jota, whose four headers this season is a Premier League high, attacked the gap in between Christian Kabasele and Kiko Femenia and his proficiency from close range meant a 20th goal of the season was a formality.

He almost had a second seven minutes before half-time only for Ben Foster to parry his shot after Andy Robertson’s drive deflected to him in the penalty area.

Gomez proved his first-half effort was no fluke with another superb delivery causing panic in the Watford ranks soon after the restart, with Virgil Van Dijk wastefully heading over a corner as they continued to dominate.

But the warning they could not sit on their one-goal lead came just before the hour when Sarr and Joao Pedro combined to isolate Joel Matip only for the latter to roll a shot past the post with only Alisson to beat.

Two headed chances for Jota and one, albeit it far more difficult, for Salah went begging as the second goal continued to prove elusive despite their territorial dominance.

But with the game still in the balance with 20 minutes to go Watford manager and former Liverpool boss Roy Hodgson sent on Josh King, Tom Cleverley and Emmanuel Dennis to try to snatch something.

However, Klopp’s side, unbeaten domestically since late December, saw the game home roared on by an excitable Kop whose nerves were eased by Fabinho’s late penalty after referee Stuart Atwell reviewed the pitchside monitor after missing Kucka pulling down Jota.

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