On a bright Easter afternoon at Villa Park, it was Steven Gerrard’s penalty which ressurected Liverpool’s hopes of qualifying for Europe next year. A 2-1 win against Premier League strugglers Aston Villa brought the Reds 10 points off Champions League qualification, and 8 points off Europa League qualification.
The Reds started off promisingly, with Enrique’s long ball falling just beyond Suarez in the first few minutes. Coutinho and Enrique’s developing partnership was good to see, and a lot of Liverpool’s first half threat was coming down that left hand side. However it was Aston Villa who had the best early opportunity, when Benteke found Bennett on the wing. The young left back’s cross was delivered well, but neither Benteke or Agbonlahor could get on the end of it. Suarez managed to work his way past Baker and Vlaar after 8 minutes, but his shot went just over the bar.
Both full backs caused Liverpool trouble, Lowton in particular did a decent job of blocking off Coutinho’s service to Suarez. His first major contribution however was a delicious cross into Liverpool’s box, which gave Agbonlahor a brilliant chance to opening the scoring. Reina was alert though, and managed to save the shot, which was cleared hastily by Jamie Carragher for a Villa corner. Ron Vlaar struggled to contain Suarez in the early stages of the match, but the Uruguayan didn’t manage to add to his goal tally that already stands at 22.
Despite Liverpool being the superior team in the first 20 minutes, Villa did manage to get themselves back into the match, and their crosses into Benteke gave Carragher and Agger a busy game. The first goal in the game came after a big opportunity for the away side. Suarez opted to try and work his own way through the defence, rather than passing to Downing in space on his right. Suarez did managed to get past Baker and Vlaar, but his shot was comfortably saved by Brad Guzan. This save gave Villa possession, and once the ball reached Westwood in the midfield, a long ball caused havoc in the defence, and was controlled by Abonglahor who gave Benteke a great opportunity to score his 13th goal of the season. It was a composed volley which left Reina with little chance of getting a hand strong enough to stop it.
Liverpool responded immediately, with Suarez putting Gerrard through on goal, only for young centre-back Nathan Baker to make a great interception. Liverpool’s pressure continued, with Suarez attempting to catch Guzan out from 45 yards. His shot drifted wide, but it served as a warning that the Reds were up for the fight. A series of crosses followed, but there was no player in the box with enough aerial presence to score. The signs were ominous for the Birmingham side when Barry Bannan unnecessarily gifted the Premier League’s topscorer an opportunity to equalize. Luckily for him, Brad Guzan made yet another great save to deny Suarez, who endured a frustrating afternoon. Guzan’s fine performance continued as he tipped Steven Gerrard’s dipping shot over the crossbar just before half time. Liverpool were unlucky to be behind at half time, but similarly it could have been a lot worse had Agbonlahor’s finish been more composed.
Liverpool responded immediately after the break. Philippe Coutinho received the ball on the left and played a perfect pass for Jordan Henderson, which he subsequently placed into the net from 15 yards. It was his 4th goal of the season, and it was also Coutinho’s 4th assist since joining from Inter Milan in January. Aston Villa’s long balls continued to pressurise Carragher and Agger, and when Benteke controlled Westwood’s long ball to find Agbonlahor, it looked like the Villans would score again with Sylla running into space on the right. Despite this, Agbonlahor opted to shoot, which resulted in the ball travelling high and wide.
The Reds almost went in front for the first time, after Suarez’s pass found Coutinho. The Brazilian had time in front of goal, but dragged his shot agonizingly wide, much to his disgust. Rodgers’ men continued to apply pressure, Glen Johnson’s ambitious shot was deflected and tipped over by Guzan. It was a minute later that Liverpool made the breakthrough; Nathan Baker showed inexperience when bringing down Suarez in the box, giving Lee Mason no choice but to give the penalty. It was the captain that stepped up and cooly finished into the left hand corner for his 9th goal of the season.
This was the catalyst for Villa to start exerting more pressure on the Reds, with rumoured Liverpool target Andreas Weimann missing a glorious chance to equalise. January signing Yacouba Sylla crossed the ball from the right, but the Austrian striker blazed the ball over the crossbar on the half volley. Gerrard made a crucial contribution moments later, clearing Benteke’s goal-bound header off the line. Right back Matt Lowton, who had a great first half, almost scored a freak goal, with his attempted cross going past Benteke, and forcing Reina to push the ball over the bar.
Sterling was brought on for the impressive Coutinho, and almost immediately forced Guzan into making a save, when Suarez played a clever pass to release him down the left wing. On the 80th minute, Carragher’s experience showed as he dealt with Agbonlahor’s pace to clear the ball for a corner. With the last minutes of the game approaching, Suarez had yet another chance to ensure victory, dancing through the defense and getting the ball past Guzan. His touch was too heavy however, and the defence cleared it temporarily, allowing Guzan to get back and save Suarez’s subsequent chipped effort. Villa were fighting for their lives in their last minutes, and they managed to put the Liverpool defence under pressure. Benteke thought he’d scored an equaliser at the death, only for the linesman to correctly raise his flag. The final whistle blew and to the travelling fans relief, Liverpool had held onto their lead, and rebounded from their 3-1 defeat to Southampton in their last outing.
Man of the Match: Steven Gerrard
Referee: Lee Mason