Liverpool closed the gap between themselves and fourth spot last night by beating Aston Villa at a freezing Villa Park.
The frosty night was warmed by the prospect of being a crucial match as both sides played for a place in the top four. Villa and Liverpool both looked to keep up with league rivals Tottenham and Manchester City, who both won their matches on Monday night. Martin O’Neill’s side looked to do the double over the Reds, but seemed apprehensive coming off the back of a defeat to Arsenal two days before. Both sides spread play and worked to keep possession. Steven Gerrard had the Reds’ best chance early on as he lifted the ball, curling it towards Friedel from outside the box only for the American to turn over.
Aston Villa came closest to opening the scores half an hour in when Stuart Downing was left unmarked at the far post to volley a shot, which was brilliantly kept out by Pepe Reina. Jamie Carragher, who netted his first goal for Liverpool, came close to scoring by clearing from within the centre circle to see the ball fall onto the roof of the Villa goal. The second half was full of sporadic chances as Alberto Aquilani’s free kick flew over the bar in the 64th minute.Villa counter attacked, forcing Reina to keep out a close range effort from Agbonlahor. Liverpool dominated possession, but the game looked to end a draw when suddenly Yossi Benayoun took advantage of a mistake from former Liverpool man Stephen Warnock. The ball fell for Fernando Torres to hammer home the winner and the away section erupted in delight as Liverpool held on to their fading hopes of European qualification.
Steven Gerrard commented: “When you have players like this (Torres) on the team you know there’s always a chance to snatch it. Everyone knows when he’s on form he’s the best in the world. We want him for many more years. We need his goals to drive us into the top four.”
Martin O’Neill responded: “Their goalkeeper has pulled off some unbelievable saves tonight and kept them in it. We should have won and we lost. We had chances to win the game but we didn’t deserve to lose the match and it’s a real cruel blow to the team but we’ll fight back.”
Martin O’Neill stated that his side “Should have won.” Villa will feel aggrieved with the loss of such a vital match, as a win would have taken them above Tottenham and kept them in the running for the much contested fourth spot. The Villa manager claimed that the only factor keeping his team from winning such a tight match was the outstanding performance of Liverpool’s Pepe Reina. The Villains started with John Carew up front to partner Gabby Agbonlahor in the absence of the injured Emile Heskey, while Carew poses aerial threat he rarely tested Reina as Daniel Agger kept him quiet.
The lethargic presentation of Villa’s game was not an advert for Champions League ambitions. The Holte End churned in expectation knowing a win would not only secure a dominant double over Liverpool and keep pressure on others, but would also offer comfort in defeating a big rival of the top four spot.
Aston Villa have encountered two of the big four sides in three days without success, however, Martin O’Neill insisted they will “fight back”. The prospect of finishing fourth does not guarantee a spot in Europe next season. Perhaps Aston Villa would finish fourth but have difficulties in the qualification stage next August.
Fernando Torres’ late goal gave a spark to an otherwise mundane game, epitomising the Reds’ slippery grasp on the Premier League. The Spanish international, along with Gerrard is the key to keeping Liverpool’s heads above water. Torres scored his 50th goal for Liverpool, becoming the fastest ever player for the Reds to notch so many goals. With the New Year imminent Benitez will hope the striker stays fit to lug them higher up the table. The Liverpool skipper paid tribute to the super Spaniard claiming they “Need his goals to drive us into the top four.”
Benitez will be encouraged by Daniel Agger slotting in at the back after a lengthy spell out, the Dane has looked dominant since recovering and gave an excellent performance. After Glen Johnson limped off in the dying minutes, Agger was to be instrumental in keeping Liverpool’s back line strong. He showed the fans that despite boardroom strife, mounting injuries could be half of their problems. Alberto Aquilani’s uneven night summed up an unconvincing match from both sides and Liverpool fans can only continue to rue the sale of Xabi Alonso.
Liverpool’s win is the ideal time to make good on Rafael Bentiez’s “guarantee” to finish in the top four. The manager has expressed his shock at the media’s reaction of his promise, with the top half of the table so open, could both Liverpool and Aston Villa succumb to pressure and let Manchester City or Tottenham usurp their fourth spot? The success against Villa signalled the first two consecutive wins in a month, if consistency is kept against Reading on the 2nd of January, they could find themselves back on track.
Aston Villa 0 – 1 Liverpool – Torres (90)
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Friedel – Young, Dunne, Cuellar, Warnock – Milner, Petrov, Reo-Coker (Albrighton 72), Downing (Sidwell 79) – Agbonlahor, Carew
Liverpool (4-4-1-1): Reina – Johnson (Skrtel 89), Agger, Carragher, Insua – Kuyt, Lucas, Aquilani (Babel 77), Benayoun (Aurelio 90) – Gerrard – Torres
Aston Villa – Liverpool
10 – Corners – 8
8 (4) – Shots (on target) – 8 (4)
13 – Fouls – 11
1 (0) – Yellow cards (Red) – 1 (0)
0 – Offside – 1