Liverpool came into Sunday still holding onto the slim chance it might finish in the top four and qualify for the Champions League next season. And while it wasn't always pretty, the Reds survived a poor first half and battled back in the second, earning a 2-1 win over Aston Villa and a much-needed three points.
The first 30 minutes provided a rather blistering and exhilarating affair, with both teams pressing up the pitch and content to play a wide-open, attacking brand of football. Neither side seemed particularly interested in playing overly cautious or slowing the game's tempo, which made it fun to watch, if nothing else.
And though Luis Suarez would have several chances that he would leave wanting, it would be Aston Villa that would strike first.
Gabriel Agbonlahor's deft touch pass just outside of the box would land on the foot of Christian Benteke, whose ripping volley would be too hot for Liverpool keeper Pepe Reina to handle, and Aston Villa would take a 1-0 lead.
It was Benteke's 18th goal of the season for Aston Villa in all competitions.
Brad Guzan was sturdy for Villa in the first half, denying Suarez on several occasions and confidently handling a long attempt by Steven Gerrard late in the half.
But Liverpool would quickly answer in the second half on the counter-attack. Philippe Coutinho would brilliantly find a sprinting Jordan Henderson with a through ball down the center of the pitch, and Henderson would calmly chip home the equalizer.
Coutinho would have the opportunity to put Liverpool ahead eight minutes later after Suarez sent him through on goal, but Coutinho would push his effort wide left. A minute later, Glen Johnson's effort from outside the box would hit the post.
Liverpool's constant threat would eventually get them the lead. The always-crafty Suarez would earn a penalty after being taken down as he tried to cut back in the box, and Gerrard would calmly send a low screamer past Guzan on the penalty kick to give Liverpool a 2-1 lead.
Gerrard would play the hero again minutes later, brilliantly holding the line and heading away Benteke's own header from a corner, preventing a goal.
It appeared Benteke had tied the game in stoppage time, but he was ruled offsides and his goal was disallowed.
Philippe Coutinho, Liverpool: A-
Coutinho has given Liverpool a different level of creativity since he arrived over the winter. His pass to Henderson on the equalizing goal was nothing short of brilliant, and while he did miss when he was through on goal himself, his run was absolutely perfect.
Folks, this is the future of Liverpool. Give him and Suarez a full year to work their magic together, and this is a team that will be tough to keep out of the top four.
Christian Benteke, Aston Villa: A
You have to feel for Benteke, who did everything he could to will Villa to a win. His goal on the volley was absolutely brilliant. He would have equalized the game off a corner were it not for a Herculean effort from Gerrard to prevent a goal. He was a little impatient in stoppage time, jumping offsides, but he nearly equalized again.
Aston Villa fans should enjoy watching Benteke while they can. It's hard to imagine he'll be playing for the team after the summer transfer window.
Luis Suarez, Liverpool: A-
He may not have scored, but once again Suarez was the most dangerous man on the pitch, and one of the most active, too. He didn't have his usual finishing touch on the many opportunities he had in this game, but he earned the game-winning penalty and the Villa defense rarely had an answer for him in this contest.
Brad Guzan, Aston Villa: A-
Guzan was excellent in this game. He came off his line at the right moments, cut down the angles on several Liverpool chances and thwarted Suarez on multiple occasions. On Henderson's goal he really had no chance, and he even guessed right on Gerrard's penalty kick, so you can't put any blame on him for the two goals.
If nothing else, United States fans will be pleased to see Guzan putting forth another excellent effort.
Steven Gerrard, Liverpool: B+
It took him a half, but no player was more vital for Liverpool in the second half than Gerrard.
He controlled play in the midfield. He smashed home the game-winning penalty. He denied Benteke a goal in magnificent fashion. When Gerrard is on form playing from box to box, Liverpool is a very difficult team to deal with.
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