A slip from Steven Gerrard may have cost Liverpool a Premier League title. A team of his will not do likewise this year, valiantly as Aston Villa tried. For an hour, Manchester City seemed to be closing in on the crown. Liverpool looked like dropping points for the second successive game.
But there was no slip-up after May’s great catalyst intervened. Liverpool have trailed in all three matches in the month, but their powers of recovery have been aided by Luis Diaz. The January signing was the architect of Sadio Mane’s eighth goal in his last 10 starts. The Senegalese got a crucial winner at Villa Park in a title-winning campaign in 2019: this, earlier in the game but far later in the season, has the potential to be as crucial.
In an instant, Jurgen Klopp was rewarded for benching Mohamed Salah, whose goal drought, penalties and matches against Manchester United aside, stretches back to February. If Klopp picked on form, he was vindicated on a day when Liverpool struggled to reach their best as they were buffeted by waves of Villa attacks.
There was a sense that, 59 games into a marathon season, Liverpool’s strenuous efforts were finally catching up with them. They were stretched as Villa were the sharper side in the first half, but they have a resilience and Klopp has an array of formidable forwards and the three who started combined for a decider that felt further testament to the relentlessness of Diaz.
The Colombian surged on to Diogo Jota’s chipped pass and crossed for Mane to improvise a header into the far corner of the net. It stemmed from the introduction of Thiago Alcantara. Liverpool missed the rested playmaker’s composure for the first hour, when Curtis Jones’s first start for five weeks was an ineffectual affair, but he proved a difference-maker with his pressing, winning the ball from Douglas Luiz.
When the Brazilian, formerly of City, struck early, Villa Park again threatened to haunt Liverpool. Their previous trip brought their heaviest defeat since 1963, with a 7-2 scoreline that will echo through the ages, and they endured defensive difficulties on their return, knowing a setback now would have greater consequences.
Instead, the damage done may be to Fabinho who hobbled off, potentially out of the FA Cup and Champions League finals.
There was a focus on a predecessor in the Liverpool midfield: their most iconic captain faltered at this stage in 2014, when City became champions at their expense. Having traded the centre circle for the dugout, his side impressed. Gerrard’s heart may be at Anfield but his team were fiercely competitive at Villa Park. There was no question of giving past, and potentially future, employers an easy ride.
Gerrard had said his side could not play like Tottenham and they didn’t: instead, they went toe to toe with Liverpool.
An action-packed, error-strewn start brought an early exchange of goals. Villa led after four minutes last season and still quicker in this. Liverpool’s goalkeeper was overworked in the first three minutes and still conceded. Luiz pounced on the rebound after Alisson parried his initial header. Klopp looked dumbfounded, perhaps by the sight of Joel Matip and Kostas Tsimikas on the turf, perhaps both felled accidentally by Ollie Watkins. The striker, scorer of a hat-trick in the 7-2, had already shown his nuisance value with a shot that Alisson parried.
Liverpool’s riposte was swift, Matip ending up on the ground in the other six-yard box as he slid to turn in Virgil van Dijk’s shot, which Emi Martinez had partly saved. Villa could lament Tyrone Mings’s inability to deal with Trent Alexander-Arnold’s free-kick as he trod on the ball.
But Villa continued to threaten. There was an Alisson slip that did not prove costly – Gerrard can testify that is not always the case in title races – while, a few minutes later, he was helpless as Danny Ings headed over from John McGinn’s cross. Tsimikas, who was deputising for Andy Robertson, made a brilliant challenge when Watkins was lining up a shot.
Mane, who stayed the striker even in a rejigged front three, carried a menace for Liverpool, heading just wide and having a goal chalked off because Diaz, his supplier, was offside. The same combination worked for a legitimate strike, but Villa kept on coming.
Ings, another of their contingent of Liverpool old boys, was denied an equaliser by three brilliant last-ditch interventions: first a Van Dijk tackle, then two Alisson saves. When he rifled a shot past the Brazilian, he was ruled offside. The scorer of Liverpool’s last goal under Brendan Rodgers sought to finish off Klopp’s title challenge. But, with 14 wins in 16 games, level on points with City, it goes on. Gerrard never got to win a Premier League title. This Liverpool side may yet get a second in three seasons.