Aston Villa (3), Liverpool (3) – Duran’s double ties the Reds, a fitting end to a magical season

Monday, May 13, 20:00 – Villa Park

Referee: Simon Hooper

When Unai Emery announced his line-up, less than an hour before kickoff, Villa fans would have been shocked to find good news for once.  Since the beginning of the season, injury news had been persistently bad.  Losing Buendia, our pre-season star, two days before our first game kickoff at Newcastle was followed by Tyrone Mings going down with a season-ending injury 30 minutes into that same game that we lost 5-1. Eventually, eight first-team players were added to the unavailable list with nary a single surprise recovery. 

Despite that terrible start, our Villans went on to a great run in the Europa Conference League tournament and, come the last month of the season, we were sitting in 4th place in the Premier League. Consecutive wins over Arsenal and Bournemouth had us on the cusp of securing a place in next season’s UEFA Champions League as well as qualifying for the Europa Conference League final.

Still, the attrition rate put intense pressure on core players to pick up the slack and the fatigue factor became a crisis coincidental with midweek Europa Conference League semi-final games. When we lost first Tielemans and, then, Martinez to injuries in our home game against Chelsea two weeks ago, that seemed to be a tipping point that could lead to a disastrous end of season if Tottenham Hotspur came out of their funk.

The shocking good news before the Liverpool game was that Tielemans was fit to play. Even better news was that he was going to be able to start (though not necessarily play to the end).

Those two weeks of Youri’s unavailability had felt like an age, given the events.  Starting with that Chelsea game when he went off with a groin injury in the first half and Emi Martinez was withdrawn at halftime with us leading 2-0, we barely hung on to a tie (2-2).  Following that, our Villans lost both legs of the Europa League Conference semi-finals against Olympiacos, and, also, lost to Brighton in a Premier League game between.  In that run, Morgan Rogers and Matty Cash were also injured and lost for the rest of the season.

How important was the return of Youri Tielemans?  Without him, we had tallied only two goals in three and a half games and had only managed one shot on goal at Brighton.

In fact, it was the Belgian’s decisive finish in the 12th minute against the Reds’ Allison that broke the goal drought with our first shot on goal and offset a devastating own goal by Emi Martinez just one minute after the kickoff.

After that, it became very apparent that Liverpool could be scored upon, and, while we wasted some excellent chances on the way, the late game dramatics by Jhon Durán got us there.  The celebration at the end of a 3-3 tie was somewhat anomalous but made sense given that Spurs would need to beat Manchester City to keep pressure on us, and we would merely have to hold Crystal Palace to a tie to prevail.

Coming from behind in a tough fixture against the Reds, the Premier League’s third-place team, after sharing wins with Manchester City, and winning the double over Arsenal showed we belong in the UEFA Champions League next season.

So, what happened in the game?  A lot.  In fact, it was quite a roller-coaster that belied the idea that our Villans were exhausted after playing over fifty games.  Still, we stumbled out of the gate.

Liverpool started brightly with Harvey Elliott being the offensive sparkplug in midfield, interplaying with Mo Salah ahead of him and Alexander-Arnold behind.  Within the first minute the 21-year-old had found space and left our Douglas Luiz in his wake as he executed a give-and-go with Mo Salah that had him clear at the goal line to zip a cross through the 6-yard box for Gakpo, loitering with intent.  Torres leaned into the cross to block but deflected the ball closer to Emi Martinez.

Somehow, Emi mishandled the wet, and spinning, orb.  The hero of the 2022 World Cup spilled it and, when he went to grab it, made matters worse by fumbling and, not for the first time, scored an own goal.  Aston Villa 0, Liverpool 1 in the 2nd minute.

It could have gotten worse.  The Reds were going for the jugular, and two minutes later, Torres got a leg to a Mo Salah shot, that was arcing inside of the far post, and deflected it just wide.

Then, at the 6-minute mark, Elliott laid the ball off to Mac Allister at the edge of our penalty area and raced through our backline for the return chip from the Argentinian. It was on the money, and the talented youngster would have been one-on-one with Emi if not for Tielemans, anticipating, intecepting, and calmly chesting the ball to his goalie.

With Youri playing alongside Luiz and fronting our backline, McGinn was free to be his creative best.  Our Villans started to get into the game and an excellent move saw Diaby on the right pulling the ball back for Leon Bailey with a sniff at goal, but Alexander-Arnold stepped in the way, and we were stymied.

Soon after, McGinn found Ollie Watkins on the left, watched by Alexander-Arnold and Quansah.  With Alexander-Arnold ensuring that Ollie would be double-teamed if he cut onto his favored right foot, our England-capped striker showed his speed, beating the local-boy center back to the goal line.

McGinn, Diaby, and Bailey, confident that Ollie would deliver, all crashed the 6-yard box against four defenders.  Watkins has proven himself to be an even better assist-supplier than goal-scorer this season and he laid a perfect pull-back for Tielemans to come steaming into the penalty area and lash a bullet that Allison could see all the way, but not even move to stop as it flashed into his right-corner.  A brilliant strike!  Aston Villa 1, Liverpool 1 in the 12th minute.

Our Villans, who had been comfortably holding their own, now started to press more, showing the belief they had rediscovered.  Watkins and Bailey both looked likely to score as they buzzed around the Reds’ penalty area.

Liverpool, once again, proved that the best kind of defence is offense, and Mo Salah led the way, flashing a cross from the right wing to Luiz Díaz in the inside-left channel.  He would have been easily handled by Ezri Konsa if not for Joe Gomez racing from the halfway line to join the attack.  The English international fullback became the overload and, when fed by Diaz, passed towards the far corner of the net with his right-foot.

Martinez dove and pushed the “shot” away, but that suited Cody Gakpo just fine as Nunez’s replacement simply tapped the ball into the empty net.  VAR was checked but all the principles had been onside when it counted.  Aston Villa 1, Liverpool 2 in the 23rd minute.  Villa fans were stung but not deflated.  It appeared that, on this day, our Villans would not run out of steam.

The play went from end to end with and the teams were well-matched.  When our Villans forced the Reds to desperately give up a corner, Luiz’s inswinger was only partially cleared.  Tielemans prevented a big boot being able to complete the process and Konsa was there to delicately chip over the vacating defenders.

That is just the scenario that our Leon relishes.  He was onto the ball in a flash and, with Alisson, protecting the near post, he squared past the keeper and through the 6-yard box.  Watkins was perfectly positioned at the far post for a tap-in, only Carlos, up for the corner, was closer.  Perhaps it is inherent in their nature that center-backs clear from goalmouth scrambles as that is what our big Brazilian did.

Right behind him, Ollie was anticipating the ball going into the back of the net.  Instead, it went just wide of the post Watkins was standing next to.  Our Villans were gobsmacked.  That was in the 36th minute.

Perhaps, influenced by that play, Diaby, flashed a shot high and wide of the net with only the goalie to beat.  It was almost as easy as the Carlos opportunity.  This time, it was McGinn who had nipped in to steal possession on the Reds’ right and zip a textbook pass between our visitors’ two large defenders for the fleet of foot Diaby to leave them standing, only to lose his composure with the top corner over Alisson’s right arm beckoning.

Our Villans kept up the pressure and when halftime came, there was the feeling that an equaliser was in the offing and a winner, a distinct possibility.  Unfortunately, before our lads could proceed on that front, they had to defend an annoying freekick conceded by Diego Carlos in the inside-left channel.

With Alexander-Arnold and Elliott negotiating as to whether it would be Trent’s right foot or Elliott’s left foot, most (including Villa defenders) would have guessed on the more experienced Trent. Then, just before the kick was taken, van Dijk pushed the slimmer Pau Torres ahead of him into the box to make sure that no Reds were called offside.

The normally sound Digne, for some reason, allowed Quansah to get goal-side of him and elevate without being hassled and he met the cross with a looping header that rebounded back into the net from high on Emi’s right post.

Aston Villa 1, Liverpool 3 in the 48th minute.  Now, this was beginning to look daunting.  However, within a matter of minutes, we had the ball in the back of the Reds’ net.  With Bailey breaking through an attempted offside trap, he stopped, causing the Reds’ defenders to also hesitate.  Then he restarted.  Meanwhile, Diaby was at full speed from a deeper, well onside, position and a step behind Bailey.

As it was, Bailey crossed to Watkins who looped a shot over a sprawled Quansah and wide of the scurrying Alisson to reduce the lead.  Another VAR check established that Bailey had been just a little offside and the goal was disallowed.  A more assertive and confident Diaby would have done the honors and the goal would have counted.

The VAR referee would have two more Liverpool “goals” to negate for offside before the game was over. In total, we caught the Reds offside six times while our Villans were only caught twice.

Come 65 minutes. Emery withdrew Tielemans and replaced him with Zaniolo and, a couple of minutes after that, Diaby was able to round Gomez outside. With Watkins well-covered he went for the near post and was just the wrong side and stung the side-netting.

In the 69th minute, Diaby set-up Zaniolo right in front of the net from a similar run and Nicolò immediately redirected to the goalie’s right.  That shot would have beaten most keepers but not the acrobatic Alisson.

At the 75th minute mark, Klopp brought on four standout players (Gravenberch, Szoboszlai, Núñez, and Jones) as substitutes, to complete the deal – this being his last away game as Liverpool’s manager! 

Then, a few minutes later, our Italian went down with an injured foot and Durán came on to replace Zaniolo.  At the same time, a flagging Luiz was replaced by Chambers.  That was in the 79th minute.

With most of his appearances coming off the bench, Durán was fortunate to receive a shooting opportunity soon after he came on, courtesy of a Diaby pass.  Quansah immediately blocked the shot, but that let Jhon get the cobwebs out.

With nothing to lose, our Villans were pressing high up the field. Van Dijk responded by passing to Mac Allister just outside the penalty area. With Chambers closing, the Argentinian took his eye off the ball and gave our pickup from Arsenal a chance to dispossess and immediately feed Durán just ahead of him.  Our Colombian took possession, dragged the ball along the perimeter of the penalty box and, using his considerable strength, sent a left-footed blast that flew by Alisson.  Aston Villa 2, Liverpool 3 in the 85th minute. 

Now our Villans had the bit between their teeth and they sought the equaliser that could be enough to clinch that 4th spot.  It took them only three minutes to tie the score in a remarkable manner.  First, McGinn found Diaby with an exquisite pass in the center circle.  Appearing to be suddenly free of his self-doubts, Moussa cut through the Reds’ defense and, as he outraced the Reds’ defenders, he flashed a pass to his left for Watkins only for Durán to cut across the path of the pass and have it deflect off his knee.

With the goalie heading to cover the player to whom the pass was intended, Watkins, the ball looped into the opposite corner of the net behind him.  Aston Villa 3, Liverpool 3 in the 88th minute. 

In the midst of this excitement, Emi Martinez made three outstanding saves (from a looping header by van Dijk, a 25-yard volley by Alexander-Arnold, and a corner-bound shot from distance by Núñez, two just prior to Durán’s first goal and one right after that kept us in the game.   Even when imperfect, Emi’s talent has been a major factor in most of our Villans’ games.

In injury time (90+2’), Diaby almost got the goal he deserved when he brought out a brilliant save by Alisson from a half-volley that few goalies would have seen, let alone deflect over the bar.  As it was, the come-back tie felt just as satisfying as a win.

We had shown that we were the equals of the Reds and allowed Klopp to say goodbye to his traveling fans and Villa fans with a rue smile.  We were good hosts!

The next day, Manchester City beat Spurs in London and the 4th place in the Premier League was ours and entry into the UEFA Champions League next season.

Aston Villa: Martínez, Konsa, Diego Carlos, Torres, Digne, Tielemans (Zaniolo 65′, Durán 79′), Douglas Luiz (Chambers 80′), Bailey, Diaby, McGinn, Watkins

Unused Subs: Lenglet, Olsen, Kesler Hayden, Iroegbunam, Munroe, Kellyman

Liverpool: Alisson Becker, Alexander-Arnold, Quansah, van Dijk, Gomez, Elliott (Gravenberch 75′), Endo (Szoboszlai 76′), Mac Allister, Mohamed Salah, Gakpo (Núñez 75′), Díaz (Jones 76′)

Unused Subs: Konaté, Tsimikas, Bajcetic, Kelleher, Bradley

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