The requirement? The same. Win. The stage, however, was oh so different. Anfield was saying “ta ra” to two servants, one icon of the game and one legend. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Naby Keita, James Milner and of course Roberto Firmino. Two of them were in the squad. None of them were starting but the crowd was littered with face masks, flags, signs and adoring fans all ready to say farewell.
Liverpool started with the same eleven that triumphed 3-0 over Leicester. Villa made three changes from their previous match against Tottenham. Jurgen Klopp was watching the match from a higher point of view than usual, thanks to a touchline ban handed down as a result of his excessive celebration of Jota’s winner against Spurs.
The only real highlight on the first 20 minutes was around the 7th minute when Anfield as one took a moment to applaud for a minute in memory of Dan Kay. Dan was renowned, particularly for his campaigning for the victims of the Hillsborough disaster as well as his pioneering journalistic work. He died suddenly at age 45.
It was in fact in the 20th minute that Villa hit Liverpool on the counter. John McGinn received the ball on the halfway line and played a clever floating ball over the top for the hard-working Ollie Watkins who took on Ibrahima Konate and after entering the box, was brought down by the Liverpool defender resulting in a yellow card and a penalty. In all honestly, it was probably merited and Watkins stepped up a man in form. He powerfully side-footed the ball to Alisson’s left but pushed the ball wide. This should have, but didn’t, awoken Liverpool who had played very disjointed football until this point.
In the 27th minute, Liverpool had three attempts to clear the ball and it eventually fell to Douglas Luiz and he provided a delightful out-swinging cross to the back post where Jacob Ramsey tucked the ball away in a similar fashion to how Curtis did for his first goal against Leicester. Something just wasn’t clicking and Fabinho was lucky to have not been booked for multiple, consistent fouls. Liverpool ended the half without a single shot on target and even though the officiating left a lot to be desired, Villa’s lead was warranted.
Liverpool kicked off the second half towards The Kop, who were desiring two things equally – a goal and the introduction of Bobby Firmino. This match resembled more of their season than their past seven games, as passes that would usually find a player went well wide of their mark and through balls were either too heavy or intercepted. Villa’s defensive lines were compact and The Reds were finding it extremely difficult to find any space between the lines. They thought they had equalised in the 55th minute only to have the goal chalked out because Virgil Van Dijk was adjudged to have been in an offside position and impacting the play. It was a scrappy finish and just have the Anfield faithful false hope.
The changes were coming thick and fast from each side but the one that mattered most occurred in the 72nd minute with “Liverpool’s Number 9” came on for Luis Diaz and his last Anfield appearance. The minutes ticked away, several Villa players were booked for time wasting and it looked like it would be a frustrating but fitting way to end a fractured season. If you have however lived a little you would know that every food fairytale has many twists and turns and Firmino’s was not dissimilar.
By the time the 89th minute rolled around, Liverpool were doing all the attacking and as Harvey Elliott received the ball on the edge of the box, he swivelled and played the ball out right to Salah who with the outside of his magical left foot played an inch-perfect cross into Firmino who under pressure from the excellent Mings launched himself at the ball and inside Martinez’ near post. Was this to be yet another late, late show for The Reds? Alas, no and even though there were 10 added minutes, there were no further chances of great significance and even though it’s mathematically possible to still qualify for the Champions League, the chance has all but faded as all either United, Manchester and Newcastle, need now is a single point from the final two games.
Make no mistake. If we do not finish in the top four this season it will not be because of today’s result. This season has not been on par with the ridiculous levels seen in the previous several and the rebuilding can now commence. The cliche “too little too late” is an excellent way to describe Liverpool’s season and there was just too much consistent inconsistency. Next week’s away game at Southampton shouldn’t affect their final position on the table and although it’s not the competition they desire, it is some kind of achievement that looked very shaky two months ago.