Aston Villa (7) vs. Liverpool (2) – One for the Ages

There were two competing narratives when Aston Villa hosted Liverpool on Sunday evening (October 4th, 2020) at a surrealistically empty (due to COVID-19) Villa Park in perfect soccer conditions (50 F.). Narrative one had a Liverpool team strongly favored to repeat as Premier League champions, already on a mini win-streak by overcoming Leeds (after starting slowly) and then dominating two of their major London rivals, Arsenal and Chelsea. Furthermore, this Villa fixture had been consistently hospitable to Liverpool, year in and year out, and usually easy pickings.

Villa, meanwhile, in narrative two, could gain comfort from the absence of Liverpool’s predatory Sadio Mane (tested positive for COVID-19) and the best goalie in the Premier League, Allison, forced out by a training ground injury. Add to that a new and improved Villa lineup, with bona fide strength for the spine: maybe the second-best goalie (Martinez) in the league after Allison, and last year’s Championship League’s leading goal scorer, Ollie Watkins. With the classy Jack Grealish, tenacious John McGinn and workhorse Douglas Luiz having completed their first Premier League season together, they had followed the run that saw them stay up at the end of last season with two wins in the book with no goals against this season. This fixture also saw England international Ross Barkley joining on-loan from Chelsea, adding a genuine number 8 scoring threat.

Indeed, it was Villa who started brightest as they had done against both Sheffield United and Fulham. Two useful forays in two minutes saw the Liverpool defense stretched but no shots to show from either. Liverpool were struggling to maintain possession when a loose pass from Trent Alexander-Arnold behind Firmino allowed Villa’s Mings to gather and pass the ball back to goalie Emiliano Martinez. An excellent distributor of the ball, he directed his clearance to Trezeguet on Villa’s right wing, but the ball exited the field of play. Robertson, finding none of his forwards able to create space, threw back to Keita who returned the compliment.

This was the first opportunity that Villa had to press, and they did so in an assured manner. Trezeguet closed in on the fullback and Robertson found all his options covered, Keita and Gomez pointed at goalie, and Robertson hit the ball the 40 yards back to Adrian (substituting for Allison). It bounced in front of the goalie as Watkins made good ground towards him. Virgil Van Dyck was available, outside the area, to his left, but Barkley was already heading that way. Gomez, to the right of the goal, was the easiest pass but Grealish had him in his sights. With no good option (Adrian was not even set well enough to kick any distance), he passed to Gomez, but to his right so that the pass was further away from Grealish. That appeared to irritate Gomez, who would be forced to clear into touch. Worse still, his truculent hesitation saw him losing the race to the ball to Grealish. Ever alert, Villa’s captain immediately passed to Watkins who was set just outside the 6-yard box with nary a defender in sight.

Again, a Liverpool player hesitated. This time it was Adrian who momentarily froze on his line then jumped towards Watkins, but the ball was already being side footed into the right-hand corner of the net. Any chance that Van Dyck had of cutting it off was negated by his seeming lack of urgency. Villa had the lead, and it was only the 3rd minute of the game. They appeared pleased, but not overly excited – there was lots of time and much work left to do. Villa 1 Liverpool 0.

The neutral observer would assume that Liverpool was not going to sweat being a goal down – it would just help their motivation! Strangely, they seemed not to be responding. Maybe it was the lack of fans cheering their rivals. Similarly, the Villa did not adjust their demeanor. They carried on as if they did not have a lead to protect and almost added to it a couple of minutes later.

A long clearance by Martinez towards Grealish on the left-wing, just inside Liverpool’s half, was misjudged by Gomez who ran under it. Grealish exchanged passes with Watkins and carried the ball into the penalty area as Gomez struggled to backtrack Watkins. A couple of head-fakes were enough to hold Van Dyck long enough to nutmeg a pass through his legs for Barkley to run onto with only an out-rushing Adrian to beat. The new Villan appeared unable to believe his luck and scuffed the shot two yards wide of the right post. The commentator suggested the team might rue that miss. He was wrong, as it turned out.

It was almost ten minutes into the game and Liverpool were still having trouble maintaining possession. In frustration, Gomez sent a long pass to nobody in particular. Mings took it on his chest and brushed off Firmino on his way to the right, saw a channel and carried the ball unchallenged into the Liverpool half until Robertson confronted him. He slipped the ball past the fullback to Trezeguet who had anticipated and found himself with possession and an open wing. Mings, meanwhile, had attracted an entourage of Wijnaldum, Van Dyck, Robertson and Gomez, while Watkins was in acres of space heading for the penalty area. A quick accurate pass was sent on its way and would have reached the striker at the penalty spot if not for a lunge by Gomez to block it.

With Mings out of position, Liverpool instinctively countered. The only problem was that John McGinn had anticipated, filled in at the back and broke up the play, but only for a little while. Liverpool were finally achieving a rhythm and, with Salah holding Targett’s attention on the wing, Keita darted into the open space in the penalty box to receive a pass from Fabinho. A quick swivel as he dragged the ball onto his left foot, and he powered a shot that traveled about two yards, rebounding off Mings. Wijnaldum picked-up the rebound and found Robertson on the left who drove a dangerous cross through the crease. Targett was able to redirect for a corner. The corner was headed clear by Trezeguet and Liverpool’s first sign of life had passed. There were ten minutes on the clock.

The next five minutes or so saw balanced play at each end of the field and Liverpool’s first real chances to score. The first was the result of their familiar quick interchange with Salah originating from the right wing and Keita assisting, leading to Firmino open with a sight at the goal, albeit at an angle. Martinez smelled the danger and was off his line in a flash and slid into the shot. Salah and McGinn met at the ball, but the Scot was Salah’s equal in low body strength and came away with possession. The Egyptian was left in a heap remonstrating for a penalty to no avail.

The pressure did not stop, and Villa almost repeated the Reds’ early calamity. Martinez received a back-pass from Ezri Konsa and sprayed it out to Mings who wasn’t fully ready. Firmino came away with the ball with a look at goal but hesitated and the ball ended up with Keita whose shot was blocked by a sliding Douglas Luiz. Shortly after, Firmino took a pass from Robertson and rounded Konsa to get a good shot from close range, but from a tight angle that Martinez pushed over the bar, making it look easy. Still, at the eighteen-minute mark, the Reds seemed to be finding their stride.

That changed in a matter of seconds. It started and ended with Watkins. First, he came back deep in his half to meet Konsa’s headed clearance out of the box, and nodded it down to McGinn’s feet, then headed up the left wing to find space. McGinn carried the ball until Watkins was available and crisply returned the ball. With Alexander-Arnold blocking his way, Watkins passed inside to Grealish and glided through Liverpool’s high press at the same time Grealish released the pass. With Alexander-Arnold moving to challenge Grealish, it was up to Gomez to pick up Watkins, but he was starting from a standing position and playing catch-up to the fleet-footed new striker.

When Watkins reached the penalty area, he turned sharply to his right and let the sprinting Gomez go by. With Gomez struggling to stop, turn and challenge, and with help from Van Dyck too many yards away, Watkins set up for a shot with his right foot. Adrian this time came immediately off his line but was barely able to set himself before the ball rocketed over his left arm and bulged in the top corner. A stunning goal. Almost as brilliant was the smile that spread across the rookie’s face. Villa 2 Liverpool 0 and 22 minutes gone!

Liverpool finally gained a sense of urgency. Jota was lively and made himself available for a throw-in on the right and instantly switched the play to the left to an open Robertson whose cross was cleared only to land at Jota’s feet. His first-time volley was powerful enough but right at Martinez who saved comfortably. It was Jota again, just a couple of minutes later, who carried the ball just outside the penalty area and cheekily tried a dink-shot that would have caught a less-alert goalie off his line and in trouble. Martinez took a step back, leapt and tipped it over.

Next, Wijnaldum set up Robertson for one of his patented runs to the goal line and dangerous crosses. It was cleared, but only to Alexander-Arnold who was ready to blast it from just outside the area. Fortunately, Luiz raced out and blocked it, stymying a potential stunner. It seemed to be all Liverpool since Villa’s second goal, but in a matter of seconds, the tide turned yet again!

Trezeguet received the ball at the halfway line, noticed that Grealish had space on the left wing and sprayed the pass across the full width of the field. Jack drove forward and slipped a perfect pass to Barkley running alongside with Van Dyck in tow. With only Adrian in front of him, Ross held off the big Dutchman with his right shoulder while hitting the ball with his left foot. It teasingly came within inches of the right post with the goalie beaten.

The ebb and flow continued and Cash and Trezeguet found themselves tangled with Wijnaldum and Robertson. For once, Liverpool came away with a loose ball, just as Luiz decided to join the fray, leaving Wijnaldum able to pick out an open Jota on the wing. With lots of voided space, he headed into the penalty area drawing Konsa and McGinn, then setting up Keita. Keita turned away from Mings to get his shot and that drew a block from Targett only for the ricochet to fall kindly to an open Mo Salah. The ball was in the back of the net before you could blink. Villa 2 Liverpool 1 and 33 minutes on the clock.

Just in case Liverpool started to get too comfortable, John McGinn took it upon himself to immediately harass them. When he picked on poor Joe Gomez, one could imagine Joe doing something rash. Instead, he found Alexander-Arnold who found Fabinho, who would have found Salah if not for McGinn intercepting the pass on his way back into his rightful position. He laid it off to Grealish, who fed Konsa, and from there the ball was looped to the right for a waiting Matty Cash. The fullback was maybe ten yards inside his own half and as he looked ahead, he recognized that Liverpool, once more, were set with a high line. Without hesitation he lofted a pass over them down the right flank where Trezeguet and Barkley were ready to break.

Break they did, and it was a hungry Barkley who seized on the ball before racing clear towards the Liverpool goal. With Van Dyck tracking from behind, he pushed the ball a little to the right. Adrian set himself at the near post, readying himself for a shot to the far post. Barkley’s decision was to hit it with power low to the near post. Adrian did not so much save the ball but took the shot on his left foot. The ball deflected around the post for a corner. Decent save.

Barkley then took it upon himself to take the corner, appearing determined to earn his paycheck. He put over a decent cross with enough zip that, had it gone to the right head, it could have been redirected onto goal. It was poor Joe Gomez who happened to be on the penalty spot and the first to make contact. The velocity of the cross limited his options and the best clearance he could accomplish was a high loop that came down only a dozen yards away and not far from where John McGinn had positioned himself for such an eventuality.

With enough time, and no foe to hinder him, McGinn adjusted his wiry, muscular body to meet the ball with his left foot as it reached the ground. Replays suggest his shot was heading with some velocity towards the right hand side of the net, to Adrian’s left, and that’s where the goalie was heading when a casual Van Dyck allowed it to hit his foot as he advanced his troops. The ricochet sent the shot into the opposite corner of the net, deadly for Adrian as he sank to his knees. Villa 3 Liverpool 1 at 35 minutes, only two minutes since Liverpool scored. It was that kind of game!

Barkley, playing with increasing confidence, was instrumental in Villa’s fourth goal, almost repeating his route from those few minutes before. This time, Van Dyck was not getting caught in a high line, he was backing away as the Chelsea loanee raced forward only to let the ball run too far ahead of him, enough for the defender to reach forward. What he didn’t allow for was Barkley shifting into an extra gear that saw him touch the ball first. He was clattered and Van Dyck picked up a yellow card. Villa also had a free kick in a promising location, especially given their familiarity with Liverpool’s dead-ball version of a high line.

It was such a situation that Villa were presented with last season, only the free kick was from the left wing and not the mid-right. On that occasion, Liverpool held a high line at the edge of area and caught just about every Villa player in the area offside, but not Trezeguet who stood back a couple of yards. The Egyptian had picked his way through to meet the ball as it reached the six-yard box and laced it past Allison uncontested. It appeared now that Liverpool had forgotten last season’s lesson.

This time Trezeguet lined up at the extreme left, unmarked, and held his run again. Barkley took the kick, and it was perfect, clearing the defenders but bouncing gently for Trezeguet to meet it to the left of the goal, where he was able to side-foot the bouncing ball just before it crossed the goal line. Liverpool hardly bothered to cover their goal as there were plenty of Villans who had been offside, but Trezeguet was not one of them. Watkins was poised at the far post and athletically coiled his body to head the ball with power and add to his tally. Villa 4 Liverpool 1 and only 39 minutes gone.

Nothing much more happened in the half other than Robertson blasting a shot at Martinez that the big goalie handled with no problem.

Most fans, and probably the players, needed the break to digest what they had just witnessed.

The second half started steadily with no sense that we were in the midst of a record-breaking event. That began to change when Joe Gomez laid another egg. This time it was a careless pass from deep in his own half. Naturally, the ball came to Grealish, who always wants it, and he neatly exchanged passes on the edge of the area with Barkley. It appeared that Jack wanted to get in on the goals as he pointed at his feet as he found a sliver of space. To the captain’s surprise, Barkley set himself and hit a powerful left-footed strike intended for the top right-hand corner of the net. We will never know what would have happened as Alexander-Arnold dangled a foot in the way.

The hard drive now gained some wicked topspin that guaranteed that no goalie was going to save it, and certainly not Adrian. Barkley had his first goal in his first game for his new team to add to his assist. There was still lots of time with only 55 minutes on the clock. Villa 5 Liverpool 1.

Only four minutes later, two Villa players got in each other’s way in their own half and Firmino was aware enough to gather the ball and slot an inch-perfect pass to Salah as he slipped between Mings and Targett. The arch-predator hit the ball first time, picking out the only opening, just inside the right-hand post. Villa 5 Liverpool 2, and not yet 60 minutes.

Grealish seemed not to be carrying any resentment that Barkley had scored and not himself, but it was evident that he felt it was Jack-time. Just five minutes after Liverpool had narrowed the gap to three, Watkins found his captain in the number 10 spot and slid him the ball. There was no doubt as to what he was about to do as he set himself to wrap his right foot around the ball to get enough spin to have it “come-back” into the top corner. Adrian was on his way when the ball struck the unfortunate Fabinho who was filling in for Gomez. Yet another deflection to the opposite corner left Adrian stranded, and on his knees again. It seemed to justify a prayer. Villa 6 Liverpool 2, and only 64 minutes gone.

Ten uneventful minutes later, John McGinn received a pass from Watkins in his own half but noted Grealish poised on the halfway line. Without hesitation he rifled the ball on the volley, close enough to Alexander-Arnold to tempt him to go for it – a fatal mistake as it flew by him allowing Grealish to skip onto it with no defender within ten yards. There was real swagger as he approached Adrian, feinting a shot to the goalie’s left before dinking it over his right hand and into the corner. Villa 7 Liverpool 2, and a record result at 74 minutes.

With five minutes left, the most dramatic was still to come. A booming 50-yard pass from Mings to Trezeguet on the wing saw him trap the ball impeccably and instantly dispatch it towards the penalty spot. From nowhere Watkins made up the ground and met the cross on the volley, smashing the shot off the crossbar with the net open (Adrian had assessed that Watkins would not be able to reach the ball whereas Grealish, on Watkins’ left, would and he was intent on preventing that). One of the game reports noted that Adrian was inexplicably standing next to his post when the ball hit the crossbar. What was true, but a little cruel. Who hasn’t had a bad day?

Five minutes plus a few minutes of stoppage time and Martin Atkinson blew his whistle. Game over and that was the first time I noticed who was refereeing – as it should be! Now it was time to pinch oneself. Was that real or a wild ride of a dream? It was both.

ASTON VILLA (4-2-3-1): Emiliano Martinez, Matt Targett, Tyrone Mings, Ezri Konsa, Matthew Cash, Douglas Luiz, John McGinn, Ross Barkley, Jack Grealish, Ollie Watkins, Trezeguet.

SUBS: Conor Hourihane, Marvelous Nakamba, Bertrand Traore, Jed Steer, Ahmed El Mohamady, Anwar El Ghazi, Keinan Davis.

LIVERPOOL (4-3-3): Adrian, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez, Andy Robertson, Fabinho, Naby Keita, Georginio Wijnaldum, Diogo Jota, Roberto Firmino, Mohamed Salah.

SUBS: Curtis Jones, Divock Origi, Caoimhin Kelleher, Neco Williams, Jordan Henderson, Takumi Minamino, James Milner.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *