This was always going to be a tough week for Villa. Away at Premier League champion Manchester City, an emotional Midlands League Cup tie midweek, then hosting runners-up and Champions League title holders Liverpool. All of it made more difficult with the injury to Jack Grealish who didn’t see the bench against Liverpool Saturday afternoon.
With all that said, Aston Villa acquitted themselves nicely despite falling 2-1 in a match where they clearly deserved something from it but it just wasn’t meant to be. Sadio Mane headed in the go-ahead goal at the death in a mythical fifth minute of extra time to extend Liverpool’s Premier League unbeaten run to 28 games.
It’s now blown leads for Villa against the likes of Tottenham, Arsenal, and now Liverpool, but on the whole, Villa look like a team capable of staying up and standing firm against the top of the league. All that’s needed is a little more nous.
Villa started brightly in what would turn out to be an open and hotly contested first half. Anwar El Ghazi slipped through in the opening minute with a solid look at goal. While the shot found its way straight into Allison’s arms, it was an early signal Villa would force Liverpool to earn this one.
The visitors grew into the match and after a quarter hour began closing in on the Villa goal. Sadio Mane headed wide and two minutes later Salah slipped behind Matt Targett and forced Heaton into an awkward save. Liverpool were finding their feet but Villa were standing firm.
But just as Liverpool appeared to be taking control of the match, John McGinn won a free kick on the left. His free kick found Trezeguet on the back post and the Egyptian volleyed it past the keeper to put Villa out in front 1-0. Villa Park waited impatiently for a VAR letdown that never came and Villa had a deserved lead in the 21st minute.
VAR would return six minutes later to review a possible Firmino equalizer and once again Villa hearts were in throats as fans awaited the decision. However, for what felt like the first time since the introduction of VAR a close decision went to Villa as VAR refused to overturn a tight offside call. It’s debatable as to whether Firmino was actually offside, but for once the clear and obvious standard was enforced in a Villa match.
Liverpool threw themselves forward in the second half as Villa worked to withstand wave after wave of attack. Heaton made a strong save on Salah at the 59th minute, substitute Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain hammered three balls into the box each repelled by the Villa defense, and despite finding himself open and a clear look at goal, Adam Lallana shanked a shot away in the 72nd minute.
Liverpool finally breached the Villa defense in the 87th minute when Robertson beat El Ghazi backpost on one of the few moments the Egyptian failed to track back and cover the attacking right back. Mane closed the scoring and Villa got nothing from a hard-fought match.
Villa are a far cry from the side that was battered 6-0 by Liverpool on Valentine’s Day 2016. If this Villa side can deliver similar performances and eliminate the subtle mental lapses that seem to be costing them goals, Villa will be fine.
Villa (4-3-3) : Heaton, Targett, Engels, Mings (C), Guilbert (Elmohamady, 69), Nakamba, Luiz (Hourihane 72), McGinn, El Ghazi, Trezeguet, Wesley (Kodjia, 86)
Liverpool (4-3-3): Alisson, Alex-Arnold, Lovren, Van Dijk, Robertson, Henderson (C), Lallana (Keita 84), Wijnaldum, Mane, Salah (Oxlade-Chamberlain, 65), Firmino (Origi, 65)