FINE MARGINS: Gerrard sees Anfield return end in a narrow defeat
PA - Nick Potts
Steven Gerrard ended his Anfield homecoming in disappointment and a 1-0 defeat at the boot of Mohamed Salah as Aston Villa’s resilient display could not eke out a point against Liverpool.
The former Reds captain was back at his boyhood club in a professional capacity for the first time since leaving in 2015 and while the locals were pleased to see him again, they were happier he left empty-handed.
Liverpool had their chances but it was not until Tyrone Mings pulled down Salah in the 67th minute that their resistance was broken by the Egyptian’s 15th consecutive successful penalty – his 21st of the season.
That ensured they kept pace a point behind leaders Manchester City and a point ahead of Chelsea in the three-way title race.
It was always going to be an uphill task for Gerrard despite three wins in four matches and a narrow defeat to Manchester City since taking over as he just does not have the quality of his opponents at his disposal.
For that reason Gerrard’s plan appeared to be safety-first, wary that many sides have been taken apart at Anfield in the first half.
As a result his players seemed more intent on defence and disruption but it was a tactic which was successful to a certain degree.
Liverpool forced goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez into a couple of low, near-post saves – one from an Andy Robertson deflected header and the other a Salah effort – while Joel Matip’s looping back-header almost caught him out under his own crossbar but they gradually got dragged into a scrappy contest full of niggly fouls.
That suited the visitors perfectly as it prevented Jurgen Klopp’s side generating any rhythm and, added to a number of penalty claims they had waved away, led to growing frustration.
Klopp spent most of the first half in constant dialogue with fourth official Graham Scott as referee Stuart Atwell’s decisions were constantly challenged.
A few yards away in the opposing technical area, Gerrard, stood with hands in pockets or arms folded across his chest, was the embodiment of calm.
It was probably the least animated fans in this stadium had ever seen their hero.
The problem Villa had was they were so focused on restricting their opponents when they did get possession the ball was often just lumped aimless forward. Definitely not the Gerrard way.
Virgil Van Dijk had a header parried over by Martinez early in the second half but the pressure finally told when Salah got behind Villa’s defensive line and was hauled down by Mings.
This time Atwell did point to the spot and Salah tucked the penalty past the goalkeeper’s dive and inside his left-hand post, becoming only the second player in Premier League history after Jamie Vardy to score or assist in 14 consecutive matches.
Gerrard turned away more in disappointment than anything else having seen all their hard work undone and then sent on Emiliano Buendia for the hard-working Ashley Young and then former Liverpool striker Danny Ings as he switched to 4-4-2.
That changed the dynamic somewhat as Villa suddenly found their attacking intent with Ollie Watkins looking more lively and Matty Cash finding a lot of space down the right, although Salah wasted a three-on-one with eight minutes to go which would have put the game to bed.
But Villa’s renewed vigour was starting to cause consternation in Liverpool’s ranks and Alisson’s flap at the loose ball and Ings after a mix-up with Joel Matip had Gerrard politely asking a question of fourth official Scott.
At the final whistle, the Kop briefly sang their former captain’s name, as they had early in the match, but that was quickly replaced by chants for Salah and Jordan Henderson.
After acknowledging the visiting supporters, Gerrard departed down the tunnel without a second glance at his surroundings as he knew it was no time for celebration.
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