Sadio Mané gets Liverpool back on track against wasteful Aston Villa

Andy Hunter at Anfield

The headline figures will come as no surprise. Liverpool maintained their 100% home record in the Premier League at the expense of a relegation-threatened team that have not kept a clean sheet on the road all season. Scratch below, however, and this was a precious opportunity lost for Aston Villa.

Jürgen Klopp’s new Premier League champions were in procession mode once again, not to the extent of Thursday’s drubbing at Manchester City but enough to encourage any ruthless and solid team seeking a desperately needed point or three. Villa did not have it in them to capitalise.

Dean Smith’s side had their moments on the counterattack and defended comfortably for 71 minutes. Not enough. Sadio Mané punished Villa’s first lapse in concentration to reach the 20-goal mark for the third season in succession in a Liverpool shirt. Curtis Jones, the day after signing a new long-term contract with his boyhood club, came off the bench to score his first Premier League goal and Liverpool had made it 17 wins from 17 home games in the competition, with the handbrake on.

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No team has recorded a flawless home run across a whole top-flight campaign in the Premier League era and Liverpool are just two wins – against Burnley and Chelsea – from adding that feat to this season’s roll of honour. Sunderland were the last team to finish a top-flight campaign with a 100% home record in England. That was in 1891-92.

“We don’t have these numbers because we think about records but because we focus 100% on the game,” said Klopp. “Hopefully that doesn’t change. When it ends we can think about.”

Liverpool were improved by a procession of high-class substitutes. Villa did not have that luxury and the point was not lost on their manager. “It definitely had an impact,” said Smith, who saw Jordan Henderson, Roberto Firmino and Georginio Wijnaldum come off the bench to lift the champions before Jones entered the fray. “I said that when the [five substitutions] rule was put forward, I think by Chelsea. I felt we shouldn’t change the rules during the season and it was going to benefit the bigger and healthier squads.”

Klopp concurred: “It was easier with fresher legs against a team that had been really busy until then.”

Villa’s players, substitutes, coaching staff and even the match officials formed a guard of honour to welcome Liverpool on their first appearance at Anfield since being crowned champions.

The last time Liverpool had started a game here as league champions was 1 May 1990, a 1-0 defeat of Derby County that proved to be Kenny Dalglish’s final appearance for the club. Dalglish was among the few present for the 2019-20 title winners’ return home, sat without company in the directors’ box and facing the stand that now bears his name. A banner proclaiming “Liverpool FC – Champions Again” was stretched across the seats in the upper tier of the Sir Kenny Dalglish Stand. But this was not a feast fit for a king.

Liverpool’s first-half performance lacked the zip, conviction and aggression that have shaped their dominance of the Premier League field this season. Villa were untroubled and lively down the flanks through Mahmoud Trezeguet and Anwar El Ghazi, but short of the creativity required to take full advantage of a Liverpool side performing in bottom gear.

Curtis Jones enjoys his first league goal for Liverpool. Photograph: Carl Recine/AP

Mercifully a game broke out in the second half. Liverpool’s full-backs began to find their range while Villa, with Jack Grealish increasingly prominent, countered with several promising attacks of their own. The visiting captain instigated a breakaway that ended with Alisson pushing away El Ghazi’s first-time shot towards his near post. From the resulting corner Tyrone Mings headed dangerously across the Liverpool goalmouth but Divock Origi hooked clear.

Virgil van Dijk then stood in the way of Grealish’s attempt to beat Alisson following another threatening counterattack. Villa’s chances were not gilt-edged but a more ruthless team would have punished Liverpool. They also had cause to regret a rare lapse in defence when Mané opened the scoring with his 50th Anfield goal for Liverpool.

Related: Jonjo Shelvey salvages point for Newcastle to deny West Ham

Smith will have good reason to question the space available inside Villa’s area when Trent Alexander-Arnold strolled forward and picked out Naby Keïta. The midfielder was completely unmarked and, with Villa defenders slow to react, had time to control and size up his options. He threaded a pass into the path of Mané and Pepe Reina was powerless to prevent the Senegal forward scoring via the underside of the crossbar.

Jones started the move that led to his first league goal and Liverpool’s second. Henderson took over and found Andy Robertson, whose deep cross was headed down at the back post by Mohamed Salah for the academy graduate to beat Reina with a half-volley that took a slight deflection off Mings en route to goal.

“We deserve more points than we’ve got since the restart,” said Smith. “But I don’t want to be a valiant loser because we haven’t got time.”

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