Soccer

Liverpool's Takumi Minamino shines in Premier League debut

Kyodo, AP

Liverpool attacker Takumi Minamino made his Premier League debut in a 2-1 win over the Wolverhampton Wanderers on Thursday, earning high praise for his performance from manager Jurgen Klopp.

The Japan international, who transferred from Austrian champion Salzburg earlier this month, played “exceptionally” after coming on as a first-half substitute, according to Klopp.

Brazilian forward Roberto Firmino struck the winner in the 84th minute at Molineux Stadium to keep Liverpool 16 points clear of title rival Manchester City with a game in hand.

Minamino entered the fray earlier than expected, replacing Sadio Mane in the 33rd minute after the Senegalese star hobbled off with a hamstring injury. He became the ninth Japanese to play in the Premier League.

“For the first Premier League game (Minamino played) exceptionally well,” Klopp told Liverpool’s official website. “He is completely integrated in the team and that’s really good.”

The German said Minamino had received treatment for a sore hamstring at halftime, but said he “should be fine.”

Minamino — who debuted for Liverpool in a 1-0 F.A. Cup win over archrival Everton on Jan. 5 — said he had mixed feelings after his first league game.

“I wasn’t completely satisfied with my own performance, but it was good to be part of the action in such a tight match,” said the 25-year-old, who made his professional start with the J. League’s Cerezo Osaka.

Minamino said he was determined to repay the faith shown in him by Klopp, who won Bundesliga titles in 2010-11 and 2011-12 managing a Borussia Dortmund side featuring playmaker Shinji Kagawa.

“The manager has shown a lot of confidence in me, and I want to meet his expectations,” he said.

“I feel like a part of the team, but I still haven’t had that moment on the pitch where I’ve shown my capabilities.”

Firmino scored the winner, but the leaders were just as indebted to goalkeeper Alisson Becker as they passed a rigorous test at Molineux.

After conceding a first league goal in 50 days when Raul Jimenez equalized for the Wolves in the 51st, Alisson made two crucial reflex saves to keep the score tied at 1-1 before his international teammate struck with a fierce left-footed shot to earn Liverpool a 14th straight league win.

Liverpool has now won 22 of its 23 games this campaign — its only dropped points came from a 1-1 draw at Manchester United in October — and is unbeaten in 40 league games, stretching back to last season.

Klopp’s team can extend the lead to 19 points by winning its game in hand, at West Ham, next week but is likely to be without forward Sadio Mane for that match.

Liverpool led 1-0 at that point, with captain Jordan Henderson heading in Trent Alexander-Arnold’s corner in the eighth minute to give the right back his 10th assist of the league season.

It was Henderson who played in Firmino to score his eighth league goal — all of which have come away from home.

“It was an intense game but we kept going and kept fighting,” said Henderson, who is set to become the first Liverpool captain to lift the league trophy since 1990.

“You’re probably bored of me saying it but it’s just about the next game. I want to keep going. Every game is the biggest of the season.”

Alisson has given Liverpool extra security at the back since his arrival from Roma in the offseason of 2018 and his two saves were crucial. The first came with his feet to keep out a low shot by Adama Traore, who earlier had crossed for Jimenez to score.

Then Jimenez was played clean through but his shot from an acute angle was blocked by the sprawling Alisson.

“We didn’t panic,” Klopp said, “but we weren’t completely in the mood I wanted us to be in when we went 1-0 up.”

Liverpool is on the third-longest unbeaten streak from the start of a Premier League season, only behind Arsenal (38 games in 2003-04) and Manchester United (24 in 2010-11).

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