A performance of two halves from Liverpool was not enough for them to claim victory on Saturday evening, as they drew 2-2 with Aston Villa at Anfield.
With Arsenal and Manchester City winning earlier in the day, the Reds' slim Premier League title hopes were shortened by their failure to win, although it could have been much worse after Andreas Weimann and Christian Benteke gave Villa an early 2-0 lead.
Goals from Daniel Sturridge, on the stroke of half-time, and Steven Gerrard from the penalty spot got Brendan Rodgers’ side back on terms, but they were unable to find a winner in the last 30 minutes as Villa closed ranks.
Now eight points behind the league pace-setters, the Merseyside club may be better off trying to secure Champions League qualification than aiming for the title. Gerrard told the BBC:
They deserved a point. We were nowhere near good enough in the first half. We showed good character to get back into it. Looking back it was probably a fair result.
We expected them to be good on the counter-attack and they were even better than we thought.
The problem today and the reason fans will be disappointed is our immaculate home record.
It is no time to panic and we will carry on fighting for fourth. They are all big tests now.
In the corresponding fixture last season, Aston Villa had arrived at Anfield and performed remarkably as they cruised to a 3-1 win, and in large parts of the first half in this game, it looked like they were going to perform the same trick twice.
After barely a minute, they perhaps should have gone ahead, as Benteke won an aerial challenge with Kolo Toure to play in to Gabriel Agbonlahor, who perhaps should have done better as he turned his stretching shot wide of Simon Mignolet and the post.
After that, Villa started to defend deeper, but Liverpool—playing with Gerrard in the deep regista role that he played to mixed success against Stoke—looked out of sorts tactically. In addition, Luis Suarez and Sturridge could not find any sort of understanding with their team-mates around them.
Villa, in contrast, looked threatening at times on the break. Ashley Westwood forced one good save from Mignolet, Karim El Ahmadi was narrowly unable to turn a deep cross into the path of Benteke for a single tap-in, and Ciaran Clark saw his header from a corner rebound away off the inside of the far post.
After 25 minutes, however, Villa finally converted a good opening. This time, Agbonlahor played the role of the provider, using a step-over to beat Toure and get to the byline before firing in a low cross that Weimann swept in from close range.
Soon after, the advantage was doubled, sparking something of an inquisition in the Liverpool defence. Again Agbonlahor provided the assist, with Mignolet flapping at his relatively innocuous cross to allow Benteke, unmarked at the far post, to stoop to head into the unguarded net.
By now the Liverpool fans were getting noticeably unsettled and for good reason. This was a poor time for owner John W. Henry to watch his first match at Anfield since Brendan Rodgers took over. The Northern Irishman’s side looked bereft of ideas.
After a horribly disjointed half of football for the hosts, however, they were handed a lifeline on the stroke of half-time. Suarez got free on the edge of the box and chipped a ball into the middle, where Jordan Henderson flicked it on toward Sturridge, who had slipped in behind the Villa defence.
Comfortably beating Brad Guzan to the ball, the England international clipped his shot over the American and into the net, giving a lift to both the team and the crowd at the perfect time.
If the goal gave his side the confidence to believe they could come back, then Rodgers still needed to sort their tactical issues—and he did so decisively by bringing on Lucas Leiva for Philippe Coutinho and pushing Gerrard further upfield to ask him to dictate play from higher up.
The decision paid off almost immediately.
Within 10 minutes, Liverpool were level. The equalizer came from a probing Gerrard through ball, as Suarez latched onto it and rounded Guzan. There only seemed to be the faintest of touches between goalkeeper and striker, but referee Jon Moss was convinced and pointed to the spot.
Gerrard stepped up and beat Guzan low to his left to restore parity.
Suddenly, Liverpool were buoyant. Suarez tried to catch Guzan off his guard with a quickly taken free-kick from 50 yards, which was symptomatic of the home side’s newfound confidence.
They were creating chances at will, and Guzan had to make two smart saves from Luis Suarez and, diving low to his left, Henderson.
Liverpool continued to push, with Suarez curling a free-kick narrowly wide from 25 yards, but after 15 minutes, they could not find an elusive winner.
With Leiva forced off with a knee injury, Rodgers had to adjust his midfield once again, and that perhaps played a part as Liverpool lost some of their momentum. Suarez and Sturridge once again appeared to be separated upfield, as the home side failed to create a clear-cut opening.
The frustration of the home crowd grew as the clock ticked down, but in truth they did not do enough to get a winner. The draw leaves them eight points behind leaders Arsenal at the top of the Premier League.
Villa, in contrast, will be buoyed by the away point—and the performance. Lambert told the BBC:
I thought we were outstanding. In the first half, we should have been out of sight. It was full of big, big performances.
I think Brad Guzan pulled his arms away [for the penalty], which could be a biased view. You are up against the Kop End, and that can be intimidating.
I thought we were fantastic.
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Liverpool travel to face Bournemouth next weekend in the FA Cup before hosting Everton in what promises to be an entertaining and important Merseyside derby.
Aston Villa, already out of the cup, now have 11 days to prepare for their own local derby with West Brom, which are due to travel to Villa Park on the Jan. 29.