Luis Diaz, it just had to be, didn’t it? The narratives for this game were written, the headlines all but drying on the paper, and the Colombian – who has endured surely the most awful couple of weeks – popped up to write his own new ones.
There were no further updates on the whereabouts or safety of his kidnapped father before the match, but Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp had made it clear it would be up to the winger to decide when he returned to action. For the Reds, staring at perhaps their most embarrassing Premier League defeat since Blackpool under Roy Hodgson, it couldn’t have been more timely.
All that, five minutes into eight of stoppage time and with Luton Town thinking they were closing in on the most famous of scalps, before they ultimately had to settle for a hard-earned point. It was one they certainly deserved, yet also a reminder of how vicious the top flight can be, how fine the margins are and how difficult it will be to take anything, let alone to stay up.
All that was ahead, though. Coming into the game, the visitors knew victory would take them second in the Premier League, with Tottenham not in action until Monday night and Arsenal having been beaten the previous day.
But if that motivation, or the unending need to be near-perfect to keep pace with Manchester City, played a part in pre-game motivation then it didn’t show; the Reds, while having plenty of possession, struggled to create much of note outside of Darwin Nunez’s non-stop running and willingness to shoot.
In the opening quarter of an hour alone, the Uruguayan forced Thomas Kaminski into two diving saves and crashed another shot against the crossbar following a terrific Trent Alexander-Arnold through ball, but Liverpool were otherwise kept at bay. Mohamed Salah wasted a good chance for the visitors, blasting high on the half-volley, while Ross Barkley likewise hammered over when well placed on the edge of the box at the other end of the pitch.
As for the hosts, their fans – usually painted as merely enjoying being back in the top flight and other similarly wholesome stereotypes – opted to spend a large portion of their time goading the visitors with chants including “always the victims”, against regulations from the FA, Premier League and other governing bodies for this season in a supposed crackdown on so-called tragedy chanting.
Later on, a supporter ran onto the pitch waving a Palestinian flag; he was rapidly tackled and escorted away amid jeers and boos from the crowd; whether for interrupting the game or for his affiliations was unclear.
Meanwhile, the Reds huffed and puffed, but largely struggled to exert any kind of superiority. Alexander-Arnold resorted to shooting from more than 30 yards out just past the hour mark, such was Liverpool’s inability to break into the Luton penalty area with any kind of consistency, and Carlton Morris came within an Alisson Becker leg of giving the hosts the lead soon after, following a great driving run from the excellent Chiedoze Ogbene.
That was enough for Jurgen Klopp to react with a triple substitution and Liverpool should have been ahead minutes later – but it was time for that Nunez moment: the improbably spurned opportunity from close range, this one blazed over at the far post. The offside flag may have rendered it irrelevant anyway, had it gone in, but the point with Nunez remains that it didn’t go in when it unquestionably should have.
And then, the unthinkable, the would-be headline-making moment, the dream shared by thousands ever since a play-off triumph in May. Virgil van Dijk’s header was blocked, Liverpool appealed for handball. Luton didn’t hang around to find out if it was going to be given; Ross Barkley broke, an Issa Kabore cross from the right was met by a sliding Tahith Chong and the extremely metaphorical Kenilworth Road roof came off.
And so it was left for Diaz to return, to rewrite the story of his week and of Liverpool’s 90 minutes.
He scored, a determined, looping header into the far corner from Harvey Elliott’s cross, before displaying a T-shirt with “Freedom for papa” written in Spanish. Emotion was clear, but so too clarity and intent to go again, with still later chances for a moment looking like they could earn a turnaround win.
The points shared, the Reds jump ahead of Arsenal as a result, not as high as they might have wanted nor as efficient as they might have expected to be after recent performances.
But if avoiding defeat in the circumstances, at this ground, felt important, then perhaps even more so will be the manner and the player who ensured they did so. Diaz decided, Diaz returned and Diaz found a way.