Jurgen Klopp’s shrewdness keeps Liverpool on pace with Manchester City for Premier League in must-win over Aston Villa
BIRMINGHAM, England — At the end of a day when Manchester City made a dangerous new blockbuster addition for next season, Jurgen Klopp’s gamble on his own squad depth paid off to keep Liverpool in the Premier League title race.
City’s acquisition of Borussia Dortmund striker Erling Haaland is a reminder they intend to set the pace both now and in the future, but Liverpool proved here they have the hunger to take the current fight down to the wire, showing impressive defiance to secure a vital win 2-1 over Aston Villa despite a much-altered line-up.
Klopp made five changes with Andy Robertson given the night off while Mohamed Salah and Thiago Alcantara were among those on the bench as Kostas Tsimikas and Curtis Jones were drafted in. It is a fine balancing act, maintaining performance levels while chasing an unprecedented Quadruple, which asks difficult questions of Klopp with games every few days.
“I know the boys a long [time]. If I would ask them, they would all say they ‘I can play’ so I don’t ask,” Klopp said. “I have to make these decisions by myself. I obviously have nothing else but watching football games and football players and, with all the things in mind, you think, ‘How could it work today?’
“That’s with the boys who come on with not a lot of rhythm, it is not that easy — Kostas, Curtis. Kostas came through a lot of pain everywhere and Curtis was, in the moment when we started playing, he was involved in really good moments. But we have to win the game so I thought now it is time for Thiago into the half-spaces. My job is about decision-making.”
It threatened to backfire as Robertson’s replacement, Tsimikas, collided with Ollie Watkins inside the first three minutes as the pair aimed to meet Lucas Digne‘s cross. Joel Matip was also felled in the melee, leaving Douglas Luiz to head at goal, converting at the second attempt after Alisson saved his initial shot.
Matip replied almost instantly after Villa failed to deal with Trent Alexander-Arnold‘s free kick. After losing Fabinho to what appeared to be a hamstring injury — testing that depth even further — Liverpool stepped it up after half-time and Luis Diaz, a livewire all evening once again, crossed for Sadio Mane to glance a superb header past Emiliano Martinez.
In a way, it had to be Mane. He has scored nine goals in ten games against Villa, five in five at Villa Park, and nobody has scored more times for Liverpool since Diaz joined the club at the end of January.
It was Mane’s 15th goal of the season, meaning that Liverpool have become only the second team in Premier League history to have three players reach that milestone in the same campaign: Mane, Salah and Diogo Jota. Salah was given just 18 minutes here to keep himself ticking over with Saturday’s FA Cup final against Chelsea next up, but Villa were more threatening in that period.
Steve Nicol explains why he’s given up hope that Liverpool can win the title this season.
There were former Liverpool connections everywhere you looked here, with Steven Gerrard in the Villa dugout alongside former fellow Reds midfielder Gary McAllister. Liverpool received £142 million from Barcelona for Philippe Coutinho but there was no payback on Tuesday as the Brazilian had one of his more subdued evenings. Instead, it fell to ex-striker Danny Ings to threaten to wreck Liverpool’s title bid.
Ings, who signed for Liverpool in 2015 before leaving permanently four years later, lacked conviction when finding several promising positions and when he did beat Alisson with a low drive on 85 minutes, the offside flag was raised correctly.
Gerrard did his best joining the chorus of disapproval aimed at referee Jon Moss for a series of strange calls. He interrupted a question about Moss’s performance before it was phrased: “No comment. I just hope it is looked at. That’s all I’ll say.” Told that Moss was retiring at the end of the season, Gerrard replied: “Is he? Good.”
Klopp revealed Fabinho was upbeat about the possibility of his season being over — the midfielder watched the second half from the dugout in a further encouraging sign — but the pace of the season climax is unrelenting with a Wembley date four days away.
“Now we have to recover, really recover, and play the FA Cup final because obviously there is no mercy nowhere because this situation we make ourselves by qualifying for all finals, which is absolutely massive,” said Klopp. “We play an incredibly big game and from Thursday on we will prepare with the boys.”
This hard-fought victory was another reminder that every one of them will be important. In praising City’s capture of Haaland, Klopp said: “City will never be a team that wins because of one player.” The same is true of Liverpool.