WATFORD, England -- This had been coming.
It's easy to say that now, in the aftermath of this Premier League season's most astonishing result -- Watford 3, Liverpool 0 -- and with a song nobody could have predicted hearing back in August ("We've got super Nigel Pearson, he knows exactly what we need") reverberating around the Vicarage Road crowd. But Liverpool have not quite been right since the winter break and on Saturday, it finally caught up with them.
They were played off the park by a fast, physical, punchy Watford side, and, while they will still collect their first league title since 1990 within a matter of weeks, this defeat will colour the rest of their campaign.
Of course, this must be accompanied by a hefty dose of perspective. Liverpool went 44 top-flight games unbeaten dating back to Jan. 3, 2019, and notched 18 victories in a row this season. Every week, the numbers have mounted up, causing jaws to drop and leaving little doubt that this is one of the best teams ever to have played in England's top flight. Liverpool still have a more-than-credible shot at the Premier League points record. But the notion of invincibility, of completing an entire season without defeat, holds a special allure -- particularly (and perhaps completely) in the eyes of supporters. In a season that has already given so much, it feels as if they have one less big target left to play for.
Not that Jurgen Klopp had any patience for such an idea after the match.
"I'm not bothered," he said when asked if he regretted seeing a potentially unbeaten campaign slide away. "Now we can play free football again. We don't have to defend, or try to break, a record. We must try to win football games again."
There was enough in those words to suggest that, with the title virtually in the bag, that big "zero" in the losses column had weighed down on his players to some extent. But the real significance of that is intangible. What we do know is that, over the past fortnight, there had been a laboured element to their play, a drop in intensity that came directly after their fortnight off. They've turned a marathon into a sprint this season, but perhaps, both physically and psychologically, those final yards to the finishing line are still the hardest.
In two clear harbingers of what was to come, they were forced to scrape and scrap past two of Watford's relegation rivals, requiring a 78th-minute goal from Sadio Mane to win at Norwich and then relying on a gift from West Ham's Lukasz Fabianski to tip the scales at Anfield on Monday. Eventually, those key moments will not combine in your favour and an off day will be exposed for what it is, which is exactly what happened at Vicarage Road.
Watford, who managed to stretch Liverpool without turning the game into the kind of end-to-end battle that would surely have seen them lose, seized the initiative with their controlled aggression and speed down the wings. Liverpool are used to seeing matches settled by a lively Senegalese forward and the pattern repeated itself here: This time, though, it was Watford's Ismaila Sarr who twice finished smartly within six minutes early in the second half. Like Mane, the 22-year-old started out at local academy side Generation Foot before moving on to France with Metz; again like Mane, he looks cut out for a stellar career at the top level.
Ben Foster, who had to face few clear chances and was only really needed to deny an Andy Robertson strike after half-time, called Sarr a "crazy-good talent" afterward. Sarr missed crucial games against Aston Villa and Brighton, two more teams threatened by the drop, through injury either side of the winter break and perhaps they would have gained more than a point from those fixtures had he been available. He made the difference here, although a goal and assist for the indefatigable Troy Deeney were invaluable, too, and Watford can now feel confident of seeing Pearson's revolution through to a happy conclusion.
"[Liverpool] are such an outstanding side," Pearson told broadcasters. "We had to get our performance right, as close to max as possible, and I thought we thoroughly deserved the win."
Watford's season is, in its own context, alive with possibility now, while Liverpool's risks taking on a slightly odd hue. They may still wrap the title up by mid-April, and the celebrations will be extensive and well deserved, but defeat in their Champions League last-16 tie against Atletico Madrid -- they are a goal down from the first leg -- would mean they essentially go into the campaign's final weeks with nothing to play for. There are worse problems, to put it mildly, but Klopp will be keen to devise ways of ensuring his side regain their spark before the final push.
"We don't think it's the biggest catastrophe in world football," he said. "Congratulations to Watford, well deserved -- that should be the headline." It says everything about Liverpool's mind-boggling achievements from the past six months, and the novelty value of the no-show they turned out Saturday night, that the reports will probably read quite differently.