Liverpool close in on monumental home achievement as relegation beckons for Aston Villa
Jurgen Klopp's side win 2-0 and now need two victories to complete remarkable campaign at Anfield
Seventeen down, two to go. Liverpool retained their 100 per cent record at Anfield. Two more home victories and they will join Sunderland’s class of 1891-92 as the only teams in English top-flight history to win every match on their own patch and the rarity of the feat shows how monumental it would be.
Liverpool scarcely shone in overcoming Aston Villa but Sadio Mane, who delivered an autumnal injury-time winner against Dean Smith’s side, reached 20 goals for a third successive season and Curtis Jones opened his Premier League account in a cameo.
This was not an emphatic response to Thursday’s 4-0 walloping by Manchester City, but it was a victory nonetheless.
Anfield’s first home game as champions since 1991 would, under other circumstances, have been an event to savour, but it added to the impression that Liverpool, given the way their intensity can stem from the energy of their fans, need supporters more than most.
They have only excelled against Crystal Palace in behind-closed-doors games but less is at stake now. A slew of records are within sight, and they could still post 104 points for the campaign, but, in another respect, Liverpool are alone in having nothing to play for. Their destiny is decided, their mission accomplished.
The same cannot be said for Villa, who remain in the drop zone. They were within sight of an unexpected draw – indeed, they had been the more threatening in a dull first 70 minutes – but still only have two points since January.
They went into lockdown with the worst defensive record and have only conceded six times in as many games since, after showing more solidity, but the recalled Pepe Reina could not mark his first appearance for the opposition at Anfield since 2001 with a clean sheet.
He had scarcely been troubled until Trent Alexander-Arnold fed Naby Keita, who picked out Mane. His shot flew in off the underside of the bar and normal service was resumed. It ranked as the Guinean’s major contribution.
Jurgen Klopp rarely plays Keita and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in the same midfield but, with the title sewn up, he could afford to experiment. As a pair, they did not add attacking thrust and ended up being overshadowed by Jones.
With an hour gone, Klopp brought on the trio he had initially demoted, in Gini Wijnaldum, Jordan Henderson and Roberto Firmino. Liverpool improved thereafter.
The striker came on for Divock Origi who, after his golden 2019, has still not scored in 2020. Liverpool decided they could not afford Timo Werner in the current economic climate but Origi’s anonymous showing suggested they may require a better alternative to their favoured front three. The drop-off between starters and substitutes is considerable.
Firmino remains on course, ludicrously, to complete the league campaign without an Anfield goal and Reina became the latest goalkeeper to deny the Brazilian but their combination highlighted the way he adds chemistry.
With the breakthrough secured, Klopp gave Jones an outing, the day after he signed a long-term contract. He needs two more appearances to secure a medal but the teenager can console himself with the knowledge he has scored a top-flight goal.
His half-volley took a touch off Tyrone Mings after Andy Robertson, who had previously been below his best, crossed and Mohamed Salah headed the ball into Jones’ path.
Liverpool ended with incision, but began without it. This was not the only summer game with a slow start but it felt soporific for long periods. It suited Villa, who could settle into their 4-4-1-1 shape.
There was no shot of any variety for more than half an hour until Douglas Luiz directed a half-volley straight at Alisson. Salah had Liverpool’s first attempt after 37 minutes, but from an acute angle. Reina held it.
Jack Grealish seemed a substitution waiting to happen but he hobbled on despite being troubled by his right foot.
He nevertheless drew the best saves from Alisson with a stinging shot, albeit when offside, and an injury-time effort, when onside.
The Brazilian also excelled with a near-post save from Anwar El Ghazi. He may yet claim the Golden Glove despite missing nine league games, which would be another distinction in a campaign full of them. The records beckon for Liverpool, but relegation may come for Villa.
Updated: July 5, 2020 09:46 PM