The Warm Down: Salah penalty earns Liverpool hard-fought win over Gerrard's dogged Aston Villa
Getty Images

A wet and windy Merseyside afternoon saw the Reds retain second spot in the table on a day when leaders Manchester City and third-placed Chelsea also picked up narrow home wins courtesy of penalties.

Having not been out on the pitch for the warm-up, ex-skipper Gerrard received a warm welcome from all sides of the ground when he followed his team out of the tunnel ahead of kick-off.

Then came a touching tribute to another former Liverpool star – Ray Kennedy – who passed away, aged 70, on 30th November.

A double winner with Arsenal in 1971 prior to seven-and-a-half trophy-laden years at Anfield from 1974-1982, a mosaic on The Kop displayed ‘5’ – his regular shirt number – as a minute’s applause rang around the stadium.

The first-half was a somewhat bitty contest. Liverpool largely dictated proceedings but struggled to build up genuine momentum in an opening 45 that was punctuated by yellow cards and other stoppages.

Andy Robertson and Joël Matip forced Emiliano Martínez into sharp saves with headed efforts in the 16th and 24th minutes respectively, while Salah’s low drive just before the interval forced another good stop out of the Argentine.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – who started at centre-forward, with Diogo Jota only fit enough to come off the bench and Divock Origi and Roberto Firmino both out – also whipped a 19th-minute effort just over.

Ashley Young produced Villa’s most promising moment when he capitalised on Alisson Becker’s 30th-minute stumble to knock the ball beyond the Liverpool ‘keeper, but his cross was nodded clear by the covering Matip.

Virgil van Dijk’s header seven minutes after the restart arguably produced Martínez’s best stop of the game but Salah soon made his decisive contribution.

After being adjudged to have been fouled in the box by Tyrone Mings 13 minutes later, the Egyptian stepped up to coolly convert from 12 yards and register his 21st goal of the season.

The Reds were unable to capitalise on several counter-attacking opportunities in the time that remained, although there were also few openings for the visitors as they looked for a leveller.

They did have a penalty appeal of their own, however, when Alisson struck Matip with a clearance and then looked to claw the loose ball away from substitute Danny Ings in the 86th minute.

The goalkeeper did appear to make contact with the ball before Ings, and appeals were waved away.

Villa weren’t far from being rewarded for staying in the game, but it was Liverpool who ultimately came away with three well-earned points.

Balanced approach

There was always going to be notable focus on Gerrard for this one.

The man who has so often been referred to as ‘Mr Liverpool’, who made 710 appearances and scored 186 goals for his boyhood club from 1998-2015, who captained the team from 2003 until his departure, who was so often a driving force, and who – for many – is the greatest player in the club’s history, continues to be adored by the Liverpool faithful.

He, as an opposition manager, was here to win just as much as the team and supporters he gave so much for – for so long – were, nonetheless.

That was how this 90 minutes would be, as he and Klopp had said in their respective pre-match press conferences.

The emotional uniqueness of the day was demonstrated in the eighth minute when home supporters briefly sung his name before chants of ‘Liverpool’ came to the fore.

Another reminder. There was affection – plenty of it – but he and they were, ultimately, here to get three points.

It was a contest that required that balance – Gerrard’s name would be sung louder and for longer at full-time.

It was also, for Liverpool, a contest which required balance on the pitch.

Which required patience and composure in the face of compact defending and persistent time-wasting from the visitors, as well as some questionable calls from referee Stuart Attwell.

Any resulting frustration appeared to be positively channelled by those on the pitch and in the stands, however, as Liverpool battled their way to a third consecutive victory by a one-goal margin in all competitions.

After scoring 14 goals across their first four matches following the international break, the 1-0 win at Wolverhampton Wanderers, 2-1 Champions League success at AC Milan and this latest victory reflect an encouraging ability to grind out results – as well as being able to blow teams away.

Klopp’s men stayed solid at the back throughout – denying Villa a single shot on-target – although there were those last-ditch interventions from Matip and Alisson in either half.

Centre-backs Matip and Van Dijk, alongside the midfield triumvirate of Jordan Henderson, Fabinho and Thiago Alcântara, offered a firm platform to work from and that helped the Reds to continuously knock at the door.

A process which ultimately culminated in Salah taking on Tyrone Mings and winning the decisive penalty.

Salah on the spot

Liverpool had had several reasonable-looking – if, admittedly, more speculative – penalty appeals waved away in the first half.

Sadio Mané went down following slight contact from Matty Cash early on, Andy Robertson seemed to be caught by Marvelous Nakamba on two separate occasions and there was arguably a case for handball against Mings when he blocked a Henderson effort.

None were quite as clear an incident as Mings’ 65th-minute challenge on Salah, though.

Henderson had found the Egyptian in that familiar inside-right position. One-on-one with Mings, Salah looked to go on the outside of the centre-back and into the box.

Having knocked the ball beyond his opponent and burst past him, he then stepped across Mings with his left leg.

The Villa skipper’s attempt to reach the ball saw him catch the No.11 and bring him down. Attwell swiftly pointed to the spot.

It was savvy from Salah and a touch unfortunate for Mings – but it also felt that little bit too clumsy.

Having done well to win the penalty, the 29-year-old then dispatched it superbly.

There was a significant delay – 115 seconds between the referee awarding the spot-kick and blowing his whistle for it to be taken – but Salah kept his cool.

He took a deep breath, approached the ball in his familiar fashion and then rammed it into the bottom-right corner via the post. Martínez went the right way but couldn’t reach it.

His 15th consecutive successful Premier League penalty – a record only bettered by Matt Le Tissier, who scored 23 in a row between 1994 and 2000.

Already his 21st goal of the season in all competitions – two weeks before Christmas.

His 146th overall for Liverpool in his 225th appearance.

The numbers – and performances – continue to impress. Another key contribution.

Villa were understandably frustrated not to get their own spot-kick late on, but replays showed that Alisson did make contact with the ball as he and Ings challenged for it.

Newcastle and Norwich up next

The Reds next take to the field on Thursday night, when Eddie Howe’s Newcastle United travel to Anfield within the Premier League season’s second set of midweek fixtures.

Currently second bottom, the Magpies will want to respond positively after their 4-0 defeat at Leicester City on Sunday, while Klopp and co will be keen to register their eighth consecutive win in all competitions.

Villa, meanwhile, face bottom side Norwich City – and former boss Dean Smith – at Carrow Road on Tuesday evening.

VAVEL Logo