It is occasions as utterly madcap as this that completely undermine Liverpool’s credentials as title challengers. There were long periods of this contest when the visitors threatened to run riot and overrun their hosts. And yet, from such dominance, they ended overwhelmed and victims of arguably the greatest result in AFC Bournemouth’s history. This defied belief.
There were shades of Selhurst Park back in the tail-end of Brendan Rodgers’s title pursuit three seasons ago in the way Liverpool unravelled. All those defensive frailties often cited as cause for concern reared ugly in the last 14 minutes here to transform their 3-1 lead into a deficit in stoppage time. The winner summed up the mess. Steve Cook, a centre-half loitering high in enemy territory, was allowed to gather and spit a shot at goal that Loris Karius spilled. There was Nathan Aké, who had started the afternoon as the hosts’ other centre-back, to prod through the goalkeeper and in.
The majority inside the stadium erupted in delight, Eddie Howe leading the celebrations, while Jürgen Klopp winced in frustration. He had described Bournemouth as “a little village always fighting back, like Asterix and Obelix” in his pre-match press conference on Friday. Quite what magic potion the locals have been brewing to make this possible is anyone’s guess. The impact of their substitute, Ryan Fraser, was astonishing and Liverpool, suddenly confronted by pace and feverish energy, could not cope.
The tables had been turned.
Retreat an hour and none of this felt possible. Back then, it had been the visitors swarming all over panicked opponents as if the natural order was not likely to be challenged. The quirk was that Liverpool’s relentless early pressure, a familiar frenzy of attacks forcing their hosts into desperate and deep defence as they flung crosses, corners and free-kicks into the box, had not actually yielded a lead. Instead, they prised Bournemouth apart twice effectively on the counterattack, despite the reality Howe’s side had barely enjoyed a meaningful touch, let alone a proper sight of goal, deep in the visitors’ territory.
Both concessions felt avoidable. Emre Can’s lofted pass beyond Aké might have been suffocated by Artur Boruc had the goalkeeper reacted quicker when the pass was made. His hesitation proved critical. Sadio Mané bustled beyond the defender and reached the loose ball first, touching his finish delicately beyond the onrushing Pole. Boruc may have still been pondering his mistake moments later when he charged out of his area hoping to repel Jordan Henderson’s pass down the right. Yet that, too, proved to be a horrible misjudgment. Divock Origi, on his first league start since April, was always likely to reach the ball first and one touch took him round the goalkeeper to leave the net unguarded. Even so, his finish was a thing of beauty, thumped emphatically from a position well outside the penalty area and a narrow angle. Cook, retreating too late to the post, could only puff out his cheeks in resignation.
What made the accuracy of the finish, taken as it was at breakneck speed, all the more remarkable was the fact Origi had spurned a far easier chance earlier in the contest from Nathaniel Clyne’s fizzed low centre. On that occasion the Belgian’s legs had almost tangled up in front of goal, his effort dribbling wide. If it was easy to contemplate whether the absence of Philippe Coutinho might have blunted this team in the wake of that miss, the sheer weight of pressure under which this side places opponents thereafter was always likely to bring reward. Bournemouth were pinned back with no means of escape.
Yet there is too much about Howe merely to accept being overrun. His reaction to the arrears was to fling on the former Liverpool player Jordon Ibe at the interval, although it was the introduction of another winger, Fraser, for the injured Junior Stanislas, which offered real hope. The youngster, with only two Premier Leaguestarts behind him this season, injected energy into his team’s approach, constantly charging, head down, at his markers as if intent upon giving Liverpool a dose of their own medicine. He transformed the contest, inspiring those around him into the most unlikely of recoveries.
Fraser’s first involvement was to reach a loose ball just ahead of James Milner in the box and stumble under the full-back’s touch. Given the hosts had been infuriated not to secure a first-half spot-kick when Aké fell under pressure from Roberto Firmino, there was relief at the award. Callum Wilson dispatched the penalty and Liverpool’s hopes of securing four successive clean sheets for the first time since early 2011 were dashed.
Can’s glorious first-time shot after Mané’s latest tormenting of the home defence, teasing space from Aké and Ibe, soon restored Liverpool’s two-goal advantage but the mood had shifted. The locals spied reward whenever Fraser was on the gallop. Liverpool suddenly felt fragile.
The implosion that ensued was not quite as seismic as that which cost this team the title at Selhurst Park back in 2014 but it was still utterly inexcusable. Klopp was bouncing up and down in frustration in the technical area as Jack Wilshere robbed Origi on the edge of the Bournemouth area and set Benik Afobe and Fraser on the charge. The ball was eventually channelled to Wilson, whose cut-back eventually landed with Fraser to curl a vicious shot into the corner. Liverpool were still quaking at that sloppiness three minutes later when Dejan Lovren’s header was collected by Wilshere and fed wide for Fraser. His centre was picked up by Cook, a centre-half with his back to goal, on the stretch with the defender spinning and finishing emphatically.
Afobe might have earned a lead, only for Karius to save, but Bournemouth were not to be denied. They had never beaten Liverpool before. This was quite a way to break their duck.