If Liverpool are to answer Jurgen Klopp’s calls for some positive momentum, in the absence of a thumping win, this was perhaps the perfect way to start.
The Reds looked set to go nine games without a win at Anfield when added time arrived with Aston Villa seemingly comfortable with parity after surrendering a half-time advantage. Villa may have felt they should have been defending another lead as the 90th minute ticked over, but instead they were floored by a Trent Alexander-Arnold rocket which saw the hosts climb four places, even if only temporarily, into the Champions League spots.
For the victors and the match-winner, a first home win of the year in front of the empty Kop, has to serve as a shot in the arm with the season still retrievable. Which may not have been the case, domestically at least, were it not for Alexander-Arnold’s late cracker.
How he needed it. The Reds right-back has been shunted into the spotlight since his England omission last month and his fortunes have fluctuated wildly since. Alexander-Arnold’s doubters and devotees all felt justified by what they have seen from Liverpool’s No.66 this week. He impressed at Arsenal; stank the place out in Madrid; and today, he covered both bases.
‘Are you watching Gary Neville?’ was Jamie Carragher’s delirious reaction to Alexander-Arnold’s late winner, but Neville was presumably preoccupied with the dying stages of Salford’s win over Stevenage. Gareth Southgate was present, though. Not that he would have learned anything about Alexander-Arnold that he did not already know.
Southgate, and everyone else, recognises the right-back’s quality on the ball – that has never been in question, even if one miscue in the second period made you wonder if someone had swapped his Lucozade for Jagerbomb at the break. The England manager would certainly have welcomed the sight of Alexander-Arnold rattling home from the left side of the Villa box, but his concerns over the defender’s fragility in his own half will remain, even in the absence of the type of calamity that marred his trip to Madrid in midweek.
Today, that was left to Alisson again, with the Liverpool goalkeeper allowing Ollie Watkins’ strike to pass through him just before the break. Roberto Firmino thought he had got his compatriot off the hook almost immediately but VAR, the infuriating, busy b*stard that it is, decreed that Liverpool’s wait for a home goal in open play should go on a little longer.
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Inevitably, when the Reds ended their driest spell, it was Mo Salah who applied the finishing touch. His header, pouncing on a rebound off Emiliano Martinez’s save from Andy Robertson’s stinging half-volley, took Salah level with Harry Kane in the race for the Golden Boot, which is quite remarkable when you consider for how long Liverpool have fired blanks at Anfield. Salah has now matched his Premier League tally from last season while having already bettered his haul in all competitions by five goals.
Some of their now-familiar failings remained. Liverpool dominated possession – they were allowed to, with Villa strangely submissive. But once the visitors observed their hosts struggling again to find their rhythm, they grew in confidence.
The Reds still created chances, with Salah wasting one presented to him by Tyrone Mings’ weekly unforced error. But confidence remained absent, even after Salah netted the leveller.
With the monkey off their backs, it was assumed Liverpool would set about Villa looking for a second goal to follow their first in open play since December 27. But parity did not seem to inspire the Reds and it was Villa who went closest when Trezeguet hit the inside of Alisson’s post with a cute effort with the outside of his right foot.
What Liverpool tried didn’t work and nor really did Klopp’s changes. The manager’s substitutions have been questioned lately, and while Thiago’s introduction for Georginio Wijnaldum seemed an obvious swap, the Spain midfielder struggled to impact the game. As did Sadio Mane when he replaced Firmino, who perhaps carried Liverpool’s greatest threat when he was withdrawn.
Klopp’s final change, with a solitary minute of the 90 remaining, saw Xherdan Shaqiri replace Ozan Kabak, which once again led to Fabinho playing at centre-back. Klopp could simply have swapped Shaqiri for James Milner while keeping defenders and midfielders in their natural roles. Not that it mattered, come the 91st minute.
With their pursuit of a Champions League spot rejuvenated, the Reds’ focus returns to their more immediate European prospects. Real Madrid will have seen little to fear at Anfield, but their scouts will doubtless have sensed a mood shift prompted by Alexander-Arnold’s missile. Such cheer has been scarce on Liverpool of late. Klopp’s men cannot afford to waste it.