Watford too hot for Liverpool to handle
Bruising hitmen Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney suffocated Liverpool's slipshod defence as Watford prevailed 3-0 at Vicarage Road for a fourth-successive Premier League victory.
Adam Bogdan endured a nightmare league debut for Liverpool, never able to settle after gifting Nathan Ake Watford's early opening goal.
Ighalo's brace pushed his tally to 12 goals in 17 appearances this term, partner Deeney claiming a hand in both strikes as Watford beat Liverpool at home for the first time since 1986.
Quique Sanchez Flores' flourishing 4-4-2 leaves Watford just one point shy of the top four. Claudio Ranieri's Leicester sit top of the table at Christmas thanks to the very same and humblest of old school English tactics.
Liverpool slipped to four games without a win, paying the price for starting without a recognised striker despite boasting Divock Origi and Christian Benteke on the bench.
Manager Jurgen Klopp has a sizeable job on his hands to resolve Liverpool's extensive defensive shortcomings, with the Anfield men languishing in mid-table.
Hungary stopper Bogdan was drafted in at the expense of Simon Mignolet, who Liverpool said had a tight hamstring.
Former Sunderland keeper Mignolet had suffered a miserable outing in Liverpool's 2-2 draw at West Brom last week however, failing to punch clear a corner leading to Craig Dawson's goal.
Klopp defended Mignolet and Liverpool over set-piece shortcomings in the build-up to Sunday's Watford clash, only for the Reds to succumb to further corner calamity.
Left-back Ake picked Bogdan's pocket to prod home the opener, when the Reds keeper should have completed a regulation near-post claim.
Watford doubled the dividend when Deeney and Ighalo flexed their strong-arm partnership once more.
Deeney dropped deep to collect a direct ball, turned and fired another arrowed pass through the inside-right channel.
Ighalo scampered off in pursuit of Martin Skrtel, who ought to have won the footrace, but instead was shouldered out of the equation.
Once Ighalo wrestled into position both Bogdan and Liverpool were in trouble again; the in-form Nigeria striker picked his spot and rolled the ball into the far corner.
Deeney caused yet more mayhem with a smartly flicked cross right into the danger zone. Bodgan elected for a punch from chest height - and only succeeded in smashing the ball into Lucas' face.
For once Skrtel stayed calm in the melee, biding his time before hacking clear.
That was as good as his afternoon got though, the 31-year-old hobbling off with a hamstring injury before half-time.
Klopp used the defender's injury to throw on Origi and hand Liverpool a recognised striker for the first time on the afternoon.
This was full acceptance from the German boss that employing Roberto Firmino as a false number nine had proved entirely fruitless.
Origi added something approaching bite to Liverpool's attack, but still the hosts controlled the tie.
Ighalo should have killed off the game after Sakho's unenforced slip, but could not beat Bogdan. The powerhouse striker made amends at the death however, nodding home to wrap up a fine victory.