Liverpool (2) vs Aston Villa (1) – Villa Come Close to the Double, then Lose

As predicted in my column last week, Aston Villa was in a position to repeat with Liverpool what they had accomplished against Fulham, gain a win in the dying minutes of the game:

With the fresh legs of super-subs for the last thirty minutes and clinical finishing, like they demonstrated against Fulham, they could overcome a weary Liverpool team and come away with at least one point.”

As this game clock approached 89 minutes and the score tied at 1-1, the Villans had the momentum and a series of plays led to the opportunity they had been working towards.  With the Reds desperate to gain three points, they threw just about everyone forward and attempted to feed Salah on the right.  Targett, racing back to cover managed to get a piece of the pass and Luiz slid in to complete the interception, pushing the ball back to his teammate.

Targett reset just outside his own penalty area and saw Watkins breaking towards the left wing.  The ball was sent on its way and Villa’s young striker, just inside the hosts’ half, brought the ball down despite the close marking of Nat Phillips.  Better still, he was able to create some space and time to see Barkley racing down the middle of the field.  Only Fabinho was between Barkley and the goal, so Watkins curved a pass towards the inside-right channel for Barkley to take-on the converted midfielder to either side.  The Chelsea loanee, on the edge of the penalty area, trapped with his right foot and had the option to immediately strike with his weaker left foot.  Thiago was closing in from that side and Ramsey and Robertson were arriving at his right.  A moment of indecision, and the opportunity was gone. Then, Fabinho got a foot in and jarred the ball loose. 

While Barkley, literally, held his head in his hands, McGinn intercepted the clearance and zipped a pass to Watkins who had caught up with the play.  That pass was also intercepted, this by Alexander-Arnold, getting back.  An excellent chance for the Villa to take the lead had been squandered, but there was still time for valuable points to be gained, or lost, at Anfield.  What happened in the next minute changed the fortunes of both teams and will contribute to Villa’s summer transfer deliberations.

As five minutes of injury time was announced, Barkley appeared to be still lost in regret. Alexander-Arnold, on the other hand, saw a chance to turn his team into the winner.  He raced towards the middle of the Villa half and found space.  The Villa player who had come on to replace Nakamba, as the central midfielder, was Barkley, but he was still well behind in the inside-right slot.  When the Reds’ adventurous fullback was fed a pass, he carried the ball into the left channel and towards the Villa penalty area, then executed a give-and-go with Salah before lofting a teasing cross from the goal line for Mane, waiting just outside the 6-yard box. 

Meanwhile, Barkley had shown some interest in getting involved until Alexander-Arnold raced away with the ball.  As the play progressed, Ross waited five yards outside the 18-yard box.  Mings rose in front of Mane to deflect the cross, but that meant the ball ran to Shaqiri on the right.  The Swiss international, who had come on for Kabak just two minutes prior, pulled the ball back to Thiago who froze Luiz and Targett before executing a give-and-go with Shaqiri that had the Brazilian hitting a brilliant strike from point blank range only for Martinez to make an even better save. What makes Alexander-Arnold such an offensive threat is his intelligence and anticipation.  He had found space in the left corner of Villa’s penalty area.  Salah had a similar spot at the right corner, but McGinn had an eye on him.  The closest player to Alexander-Arnold was none other than Ross Barkley. 

Aware that, arguably, the most dangerous shooter of the ball from distance in the Premier League was in the vicinity, Villa fans around the world will wonder why it never occurred to Barkley to intercede when Martinez’s save arrived, half-cleared, to the fullback’s feet or when Alexander-Arnold set to curve a shot around Jacob Ramsey and inside Martinez’s left post.   Unchallenged, the shot entered the Villa net at 90 minutes and 17 seconds, Liverpool 2, Aston Villa 1.

Other Villa fans are also wondering why exceptional performances by Keinan Davis, off the bench against Man U., Spurs, and Fulham, did not make him the go-to-substitute for this game.  There has to be the belief that Barkley can, and will, return to peak fitness and performance with, or without, Grealish alongside him.  Unfortunately, there is little evidence to support that supposition.

On the other hand, remove one Villa player’s performance from the picture and there was much to celebrate for Villa fans.  Certainly, it was easy to imagine how the availability of a fit Jack Grealish would have made victory very likely.  The maestro’s ability to slow the game down and draw fouls make it almost impossible for opponents to claw back from even a 1-0 deficit.

As it was, the game was played on a knife-edge from the kick-off.  An encouraging start featured John McGinn harassing Kabak as he tried to gather a long ball by goalie, Emi Martinez, near the right-hand corner.  The wily Scot came away with possession and forced the Reds’ recent acquisition into a foul.  The cross was cleared, but the play had already made a statement in the first two minutes.

Still, it was Liverpool who appeared most determined to control early possession.  Their midfield trio of Wijnaldum, Fabinho, and Milner were lined up at the Villa halfway line and made it very difficult for the Villans to get a toehold on the game.  Aided by the skill and tenacity of Salah and Jota, they dominated the early going.  This led to an opening for Salah to shoot from the left, courtesy of a neat pass by Robertson, but Martinez covered his post well and comfortably pushed the shot away for a corner.  That was after 5 minutes.

Then Jota seemed to have an opening on the same wing, but McGinn anticipated and interceded, inducing a foul by the frustrated Portuguese International.  Then, from a Mings’ loss of concentration, Salah was gifted a one-on-one opportunity with Martinez, but the Villa goalkeeper instantly closed down the Premier League’s top scorer forcing him to attempt to squeeze the ball inside the far post.  The Argentinian had his angle perfect, and the ball rolled inches wide as Mings and the rest of Villa fandom breathed a huge sigh of relief.

That was in the 13th minute.  The next gilt-edged chance came to the Villa.  Again, the opportunity was self-inflicted.  From a Targett freekick on the left, Ezri Konsa was left unmarked with only Allison to beat but the cross lacked pace and the angle made the header a relatively easy save for the keeper.

Liverpool continued to create opportunities.  Firmino dragged a shot wide, Jota headed just over from a corner, and an Alexander-Arnold freekick was tipped over comfortably by Martinez.  Then Traoré received a throw-in on the right and recklessly passed across the midfield gifting Salah an opportunity.  He was forced to pass to Alexander-Arnold and Targett made an excellent block.  Despite all their possession and some sloppy Villa play, the Villa were still well in the game and not appearing to be in trouble.

Then, out of nothing, the Villa took the lead.  For once, the Villa had some possession in the Reds’ end and pushed their backline up.  When Milner tried to feed Firmino, Konsa got a foot in to deflect the pass back into the Reds’ half and Luiz pounced on it.  The Brazilian immediately dispatched it to McGinn who had a channel to run into and nobody halting his progress to the penalty area.  The way he held himself, there was no doubt that a shot from distance was on his mind.  Maybe when he saw Watkins on the edge of the box between Phillips and Kabak, he thought better of it, and he passed to his striker.

Not dissimilar to his goal in the Euros, Watkins controlled and shot, almost in one motion.  With less time and space than against San Marino, he just made sure to keep the shot low, hard, and wide of Allison.  The shot handcuffed the keeper and the ball squirted off his right hand and into the back of the net.  Villa had drawn first blood, Liverpool 0, Aston Villa 1 with 43 minutes on the clock.

Liverpool were stung, obviously rattled at facing another consecutive home loss.  Within a minute, Alexander-Arnold sent a magnificent diagonal cross from the right touchline in his own half aimed for Jota, racing outside Cash towards Villa’s goal.  The excellent pick-up from Nottingham Forest raced back, and attempted to intercept, at the same time.  Cash missed the ball completely, but he did manage to distract Jota in the process, who missed the pass but chased it down before it ran out for a goal kick.

Cash recovered also, but by the time he confronted Jota, the Reds had Salah, Robertson and Firmino prowling around the 6-yard box.  A couple of neat passes led to a shot by Robertson, a block by Mings and a clinical finish by Firmino over sliding Villa defenders.  That all took a few seconds.  It took a lot longer for the VAR system to decide that Jota had been offside by a hair.  The Villa still led at the half.

Liverpool started the second half the way they finished the first, on the front foot.  Salah had two excellent chances, one deflected wide by Mings and the second blocked by Konsa, only to get a little lucky on the third.  It’s fair to say, he earned that luck!

On a partial break, Salah laid off a pass to Firmino at the halfway line with Targett racing to get back.  After Firmino passed the ball onto Milner, the ex-Villan pinged the ball out to Jota on the left wing.  Meanwhile, Robertson had been at full speed from deep in his own area in the inside-left channel.  He went past Nakamba who tried to keep up but could not as the Scottish international entered the 18-yard box.  Seeing his teammate racing by, Jota one-touched Milner’s pass inside to the Scot who, in turn, did not bother to control.  Instead, Robertson hit the ball with venom as soon as it arrived.  The shot was powerful and heading to the corner.

Martinez dove to his left and pushed the shot away. Coincidental with Robertson’s great run, Salah had not slowed down either as he headed toward the Villa goal from where he had started the play with his lay-off to Firmino and neither Mings nor Targett had been able to stay with the Egyptian.  Martinez’s rebuff could have gone anywhere, but just happened to arrive in front of Salah with the open left side of the net beckoning.  Salah finally got his open field goal by nodding home.  A long time coming. Liverpool 1, Aston Villa 1.  Mings was less than a yard behind the play, but there was nothing he could do.  There was 56 minutes and 53 seconds on the clock!

One might have expected Liverpool to pour the pressure on to turn this breakthrough to the victory they desperately needed if they were going to have a chance of getting into the top four.  Instead, Villa almost regained the lead less that two minutes later.  Mings, who had become even more ferocious as the game progressed, seized on a Reds’ clearance and returned the ball to Watkins’s feet inside the penalty area.  The striker managed to control the long pass and turn around Phillips on the outside.  He was running out of room for a left-footed shot, so he pulled the ball back and laid it off for the trailing Trézéguet.  The Egyptian, an instinctive finisher, saw an open top right-hand corner and hit the ball immediately with the outside of his right foot.  Allison watched as the ball rose to hit the inside of his left post, just under the crossbar and rebound across the face of the goal.  Trézéguet had not stopped and as the ball came past the other post, he dove and attempted to head it back into the goal, but it went wide.  That was so close.  With 62 minutes gone, Villa looked the more likely to score.

Smith decided to roll the dice and go for the three points.  He brought on Barkley for Nakamba.  Soon after, Watkins was able to rise highest for a long clearance from his defense and cushion a header into open space for Barkley to run onto and take a left-footed shot from just outside the area with no defender in the way.  There was a sense that this could be it, but there was no powder in the gun.  The ball squirted and Allison gratefully picked it up.

Then, when Trézéguet got goal-side of Alexander-Arnold in the area, the fullback pulled the winger back and caused his knee to buckle.  Trézéguet collapsed in pain as the ball rolled out for a goal kick.  With the distraction of this major injury, the illegal interference was overlooked, and the Reds avoided even a VAR check for a penalty.

With Trézéguet and Traoré both having to go off, injured, Ramsey and El Ghazi joined the fray and not much happened until the 89th minute, but you know about that.  What was notable was that a little before that, McGinn had lofted a pass into the open left corner that Allison was 20 yards closer to than Watkins but the young Villan chased it down.  After non-stop running throughout the game, Watkins looked as fresh as a daisy and Allison just reached the ball in time and was forced to hit it directly out, deep in the Reds’ half.

No wonder fans love this striker and why England team manager, Gareth Southgate, who was in the stands, is likely to make him part of the Euro Squad.  Note that Konsa, who played impeccably for the full 95 minutes, will also likely get a spot in the England defense based, in part, on his performance against this still potent Reds’ offence.

Still, that is not much comfort to Villa fans who saw that their team could have, and should have, come away from Anfield with a lot more from this game.

ASTON VILLA (4-3-3): Emiliano Martinez; Matty Cash, Ezri Konsa, Tyrone Mings (captain), Matt Targett, Douglas Luiz, Nakamba, John McGinn, Bertrand Traoré, Ollie Watkins, Trézéguet

SUBS: Heaton, Taylor, Barkley (s, 66), El Ghazi (s, 68’), Engels, Elmohamady, Davis, Ramsey (s, 82’).

Liverpool (4-3-3): Alisson, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Nat Phillips, Ozan Kabak, Andy Robertson, Georginio, Wijnaldum, Fabinho, James Milner, Mohamed Salah, Firmino, Diogo Jota

SUBS: Adrian, Tsimikas, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ben Davies, Rhys Williams, Shaqiri (s, 89’), Mane (s, 75’), Thiago (s, 70’), Naby Keita

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