Steven Gerrard’s return to Anfield as Aston Villa manager ended in a 1-0 defeat by Liverpool with a 67th minute Mohamed Salah penalty keeping the Merseysiders a point behind Premier League leaders Manchester City.
There was little fanfare for Gerrard, the Liverpool-born former captain and Champions League winner, as he took his place in the technical area before the game and stuck with his approach of treating the game like any other.
Even at the final whistle, when Liverpool fans finally broke into a chorus of his name, Gerrard, on the pitch shaking hands with players and officials, made no reciprocal gesture, saving his applause for Villa’s visiting support.
Asked about the reaction from the Liverpool fans to his return, Gerrard was ice cold.
“For me the priority is the support from the Aston Villa fans,” he said.
It was a professional approach from Gerrard, one which showed respect for his new club and their supporters and he will have added to his growing reputation as a manager from the way he set his team up to frustrate Juergen Klopp’s side.
It was a conservative approach, with Ollie Watkins playing as a lone striker supported by veteran Ashley Young and a bank of three midfielders sat in front of the back four, but it succeeded in limiting Liverpool’s space.
Inevitably though, Liverpool dominated the first half with Villa keeper Emiliano Martinez doing well to keep out a back-post header from Andy Robertson and a close-range shot at the near post from Salah.
After the break, Martinez produced a brilliant reflex stop to keep out a powerful header from Virgil van Dijk but Liverpool’s pressure finally paid off when Salah went down in the box under challenge from Tyrone Mings.
The Egyptian fired home an unstoppable spot-kick after protests from Villa. Gerrard felt that the decision was “soft” and was puzzled that referee Stuart Attwell did not go to the pitchside monitor to review the decision.
The Villa manager threw on forward Danny Ings and the attack-minded Emiliano Buendia in a bid to find a late leveller and the way his side put pressure on the Liverpool defence in the latter stages left him wondering what might have been had he taken a more positive approach earlier.
Villa claimed in vain for a late penalty when Ings went down as Liverpool keeper Alisson Becker challenged leaving Gerrard frustrated.
“I thought Liverpool were better in terms of general play. Their style was better than ours, but we’ve done so well to contain them for large periods. Ultimately the game has been decided by a penalty. There were two penalty incidents in the game, Liverpool got theirs,” he said.
Klopp conceded his team had lost their way after taking the lead.
“For 75 minutes we were outstanding. Clearly the better side and played in all the areas we needed to play. We created moments,” said the German.
“But we go 1-0 up and… Argh. Then the game opens up, let me say it like this… We lost the rhythm. That’s a problem in football so you have to hold it from the beginning.”
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