LIVERPOOL, England — For the first time in his football career, Steven Gerrard kept the Liverpool crowd quiet and it was just what he wanted. In the end, it counted for little as the Aston Villa manager was unable to save his team from a 1-0 defeat against his old club at Anfield, but the absence of tribute songs will not have been lost on the former Liverpool captain.
Mohamed Salah’s 65th minute penalty – awarded after he’d been fouled by defender Tyrone Mings – was all that separated Liverpool and Villa on a day when the Premier League’s top three sides all relied on penalties to claim three points in their race for the title. Prior to that, Villa had defended stubbornly and frustrated Liverpool, displaying the same kind of tenacity and desire that typified Gerrard during his 17-year career in a red shirt. They also infuriated the crowd — and Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp — with some pretty blatant time-wasting which was orchestrated by goalkeeper Emi Martinez.
Had Villa been awarded a penalty in the 85th minute, after substitute Danny Ings appeared to have been tripped by the arm of goalkeeper Alisson Becker, Gerrard may have come away from his old stamping ground with a point that would have enhanced Villa’s prospects of qualifying for Europe and taken the wind out of Liverpool’s attempt to keep pace with leaders Manchester City.
Even though the former Rangers manager’s first competitive match as an opponent at Anfield ended in defeat, it was a good day for the 41-year-old in terms of his reputation as a rising star in management. Villa were well organised with a clear game-plan, even if they came to Anfield to contain rather than chase victory.
It would have been an ordeal for Gerrard if Liverpool been allowed to cut loose and inflict the kind of hammering on Villa that they’ve subjected Watford, Everton and Manchester United to in recent weeks. Those songs that used to celebrate him as a player would have been aired by The Kop, but it would have been humiliating for Gerrard to hear them while his new team was struggling. In the end, aside from a brief chant in the eighth minute — Gerrard wore 8 during his pomp as Liverpool captain — there was nothing until after the final whistle, once the game was won.
Villa had made life so difficult for Liverpool that the fans simply didn’t dare to tempt fate by singing his name at a time when their own team needed their backing. Next time he returns to Anfield, however, Gerrard may need to be more animated himself in order to get something out of the game.
Klopp, the man he is widely tipped to succeed when the German leaves his post, spent the majority of the game berating officials and arguing with the fourth official about every decision that went against his team. Gerrard remained calm and composed, even when Ings was fouled by Alisson in the closing stages. Maybe next time, Gerrard will take a leaf out of Klopp’s book and rant at the referee, because he certainly believed his team should have had a penalty.
“Ultimately, the game was decided by a penalty,” Gerrard said. “There were two in the game: Liverpool got theirs and we didn’t get ours, and I think you can see that Salah fouled Mings before their penalty. By being fouled, he has ended up fouling Salah. If Danny Ings puts an arm anywhere near Alisson in the box, it’s a foul, so if Alisson does it to Ings, why not a foul? It’s an answer I don’t have right now, but I am disappointed that the ref doesn’t have another look, in both cases.”
Although Liverpool dominated, with Villa keeper Martinez forced to produce a number of crucial saves, Ings, Ashley Young and Ollie Watkins did trouble the home side’s defence and make Klopp’s team work for their win.
“The opponent defended compact,” Klopp said. “It looked really good, we played in the spaces we wanted to play, but we did not finish the situations which is tricky. We came out in the second half and knew we had to keep going. We kept going.
“We scored with the penalty then the relief was obviously too big and it was an unnecessary open game. Like tooth pain! Nobody needs that.”
Watching this Villa team, you can see how Gerrard has instilled organisation and discipline; a reliable goalscorer could be the difference between a mid-table finish and European qualification. Gerrard has already stabilised the team in the wake of Dean Smith’s sacking, but if he is to be a front-runner to replace Klopp when he eventually leaves, he will have to turn Villa into winners on a regular basis and that will be a challenge.
The task facing Gerrard is not an easy one: Smith took Villa to promotion and a Carabao Cup Final, but it wasn’t enough to save him from the sack. Emerging from a trip to Anfield with his reputation enhanced because he made life difficult for Liverpool and Klopp is certainly a good place from which to build.