Never mind the nonsense about who the majority of England want to win the Premier League title. Or the standout plotline of Steven Gerrard hurting the club that he loves with Aston Villa. Liverpool knew what they needed to do in order to keep their hopes alive and they knew it would be difficult.
So it proved. Villa scored first through Douglas Luiz, they were excellent for the opening half-hour and they hardly lay down thereafter. It was a night when Jürgen Klopp made changes and Manchester City wondered whether Liverpool would have enough.
They did. Ahead of City’s trip to Wolves on Wednesday night, Liverpool moved level on points, returning the pressure on them, after a performance of steel and rising levels of composure. They were not at their best and there were times when Villa got at their defense too easily.
But after Joël Matip found a quick-fire equalizer, it was Sadio Mané who continued his fabulous recent form with what proved to be the winner. Mané found space when Luis Díaz crossed from the left before contorting his body to direct the header home. Over to City.
“This does not slip now.” So said Gerrard, in his role as Liverpool captain, towards the end of the 2013-14 season and we all know how that worked out. Klopp may have said the same thing before kick-off about his team’s challenge because there was surely no margin for error after Saturday’s home draw with Tottenham.
Klopp wore a bewildered expression as Villa scored early and it was reward for the home team’s fast and committed start. Liverpool’s last line wobbled. It was Ollie Watkins who had first got in around the back, on a high ball from Tyrone Mings and, when he cut inside and unloaded, Alisson had to make a smart save.
Villa recycled and Douglas Luiz just seemed to want it more than his markers when he attacked Lucas Digne’s cross. Alisson pushed the effort out, without real conviction and, with players on the floor, including Konstantinos Tsimikas and Matip, Douglas Luiz had a simple finish.
Liverpool’s response was immediate and the equalizer followed more loose defending, Mings erring this time, getting a Trent Alexander-Arnold free-kick stuck under his studs. Matip challenged, Diogo Jota went in and the ball broke to Virgil van Dijk, who shot and watched Emiliano Martínez throw out a hand. Matip was on hand to prod home and it was fair to say that the touchpaper had been lit.
Liverpool carried an exemplary record to Villa Park against teams that they would hope or, more like, expect to beat. In 18 previous matches this season against opponents that started the day in the bottom half of the table, they had won 18 and by an aggregate score of 52-4.
Villa were determined to buck the trend. They brought a rare intensity to the first half, denying Liverpool time on the ball, especially their defenders. The visitors struggled to cope, at times, and they lost Fabinho to a hamstring pull after he had been robbed by Philippe Coutinho. Klopp sent on Jordan Henderson, who had started on the bench alongside Thiago Alcântara and Mohamed Salah with Saturday’s FA Cup final against Chelsea in mind. Andy Robertson was rested entirely.
Villa Park buzzed throughout the first period, often with indignation at some of the decisions from Jon Moss. The tempo barely dipped, which did not seem to suit the referee. Alisson shanked a clearance straight at Watkins and was fortunate to get away with it while Danny Ings had to do better when he rose to meet a whipped John McGinn cross.
Liverpool were more convincing at the other end. They worried Villa with their interchanges and overloads up the flanks and they had chances before the interval, ending the period in the ascendancy. Mané had headed just wide on 20 minutes but Liverpool slowly turned the screw. Mané shot home but Luis Díaz was offside in the buildup and the big chance was created by Díaz and Alexander-Arnold for Naby Keïta. Unmarked 10 yards out and centrally placed, he completely missed his kick. Curtis Jones also shot straight at Martinez.
Gerrard and Klopp both sprinted for the tunnel at half-time, a neat reflection of the urgency of the contest, and it did not relent in the second half, Liverpool eager to resume where they left off. They pressed high, trying to pen Villa back, and they probed, Alexander-Arnold almost releasing Diaz with a lovely ball over the top.
Moments earlier, Alexander-Arnold had bent a free-kick just past the angle of post and crossbar; after it, he whistled another one wide. Ings played in Watkins and Tsimikas had to be quick to get across but Liverpool were in control, calling the tune, advertising the next goal.
They got it when the 62nd-minute substitute Carney Chukwuemeka played Douglas Luiz into trouble and Thiago, also on by now, pounced. He won the ball and found Jota, who moved it to Díaz. Danger. Mané’s header was a beauty.
The back and forth continued until the last. Ings’s touch let him down on 69 minutes and, towards the end, he would be denied by Alisson from a tight angle. For Liverpool, Mané had a shot cleared off the line by Matty Cash while Keïta whistled another one inches inches wide.