Aston Villa 1 – 3 Liverpool
Liverpool made a winning return to Premier League action as they restarted their bid to force their way into the top four with an entertaining victory over Aston Villa.
Goals from Mohamed Salah, Virgil van Dijk and teenager Stefan Bajcetic ensured the Reds recorded a third successive league win for the first time this season and reduced the gap to the Champions League places to five points.
While Liverpool’s first fixture after the World Cup break resulted in a Carabao Cup fourth-round defeat by Manchester City on Thursday, Salah’s fifth-minute opener – created by a couple of sublime passes from full-backs Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson – gave them the perfect start on their league return.
Darwin Nunez’s wastefulness prevented the visitors from extending their lead but they were able to add a second before half-time when Van Dijk’s shot deflected in off Ezri Konsa following a corner.
Ollie Watkins and Leon Bailey had both squandered a couple of fine opportunities for Villa in an exciting first half but Unai Emery’s side were rewarded for their persistence after the restart when Watkins headed in Douglas Luiz’s cross.
However, Spanish 18-year-old Bajcetic’s first senior goal two minutes after coming on as a substitute, which followed great work by Nunez to sprint for a ball over the top, ended home hopes of a dramatic fightback at Villa Park.
While Jurgen Klopp said he was pleased that his sixth-placed side would resume their campaign “within punching distance” of the Premier League’s top four, he added prior to kick-off that he felt it was a “long arm still” following their early season struggles.
But, with a game in hand on fourth-placed Tottenham, the Liverpool boss must now feel confident of attaining their target in the second half of the campaign.
The Reds’ cause had received an early boost when Spurs drew with Brentford earlier in the day and their first-half double put them in position to take full advantage.
Robertson’s crucial role in the opener – setting up Salah with a first-time ball across the six-yard box after Alexander-Arnold’s stunning outside-of-the-foot pass – saw him overtake Leighton Baines as the defender with the most assists in the competition’s history (54).
Despite appearing comfortable at half-time it was certainly not job done for Liverpool against determined opposition and they were relieved to add a late third after withstanding spells of intense Villa pressure following Watkins’ lifeline. Klopp’s side dropped 20 points from their opening 14 fixtures – two shy of the total number of points they let slip in the whole of the last campaign – but there are now signs of momentum for last season’s runners-up.
There may not have been a goal for Nunez to celebrate at Villa Park but the Uruguayan demonstrated flashes of the promise that convinced Liverpool to pay big money to sign him from Benfica in the summer. There is certainly no doubt that he should have added to his tally of nine goals in 20 games for the club here – and on another occasion such misses could prove costly.
The tenacious 23-year-old ended the match with the highest expected goals value of any player (1.15 xG) after landing four of his six shots on target – five of which were taken inside the penalty area. But his 12 touches inside the opposition box – also a match-leading figure – hinted at his broader influence and his unpredictable movements caused huge issues for the Villa defence throughout.
Perhaps the clearest demonstration of his importance arrived in the build-up to Liverpool’s third. With the match inside the final 10 minutes, Nunez refused to give up the chase and cut the ball back from the byeline to allow substitute Bajcetic to all but seal the three points and avoid a potentially awkward finish.
Despite defeat, there remains much for Aston Villa supporters to be optimistic about with the Emery era only just beginning. The four-time Europa League winner was bidding to become the first Villa manager to win each of his first three league games in the club’s history and he will believe his side’s positive approach deserved more.
Watkins had already been denied by Alisson prior to Liverpool’s first and later passed up an opportunity from John McGinn’s back-post cross, while twice an off-balance Bailey failed to connect with the ball when well-placed. This was another positive showing and they remain five points clear of the relegation positions following encouraging pre-World Cup victories over Manchester United and Brighton.