Jürgen Klopp had performed his triple fist pump in front of the travelling Liverpool support. The manager’s pulse was still racing but the emotion was elation now – perhaps a bit of relief – rather than high stress. And then, as he prepared to disappear off down the tunnel, he glimpsed his match-winner.
Sadio Mané had operated largely on the fringes. The striker had flashed one header wide and seen another effort pulled back for offside against Luis Díaz. But on 65 minutes, Mané sensed his opportunity. And how he made it count. On current form, you can only keep him out for so long.
It was Díaz up the left, teasing Tyrone Mings before crossing, but the goal that settled this high-octane game and thrilled the entire nation (only joking, Pep) was all about the movement and ingenuity of Mané. He ghosted into space before shaping his body to fashion the power in the header. Emiliano Martínez had no chance.
Nor did Mané when Klopp got hold of him in the victory celebrations. There was a big bearhug before Klopp fixed him in a headlock, manhandling him playfully from the scene. Mané had seen a late effort cleared from in front of the line by Matty Cash but his eighth goal in 11 games proved the difference.
Liverpool deserved the win that returns the pressure on to Manchester City ahead of the Premier League leaders’ visit to Wolves on Wednesday night, although it was not easy. They needed Alisson to make a few saves, including two to keep out Danny Ings. The first came after the Aston Villa forward had taken a heavy touch; the second on 84 minutes when Ings made ground to the right of goal, the angle tight.
Villa were excellent for the opening half-hour. They scored early through Douglas Luiz and they hardly lay down thereafter. It was a night when Klopp rested Andy Robertson and used Jordan Henderson, Thiago Alcântara and Mohamed Salah only as substitutes.
Liverpool had enough to get the job done, the win characterised by rising levels of control and, also, them digging in when needed. The only blot was the hamstring injury that forced off Fabinho midway through the first half. Henderson’s arrival for him coincided with Liverpool tightening their grip.
Not that Villa were ever out of it on a night when the tempo rarely dropped and the referee, Jon Moss, struggled to keep up. He enraged the Villa fans throughout and there were times when it was difficult to predict his next decision.
Would the Villa manager, Steven Gerrard, force a slip from his beloved Liverpool? After their home draw with Tottenham on Saturday, the away side could ill afford another one. Gerrard could be proud at how his team played, especially at the outset when they were quick and committed. And deserved their lead, which had Klopp stunned.
It was Ollie Watkins who first got in around the back of the Liverpool defence, on to a high ball from Tyrone Mings and, when he cut inside and unloaded, Alisson had to make a smart save. Villa recycled and Douglas Luiz just seemed to want it more than his markers when he attacked Lucas Digne’s cross. Alisson pushed the effort out, without real conviction and, with players on the floor, including Konstantinos Tsimikas and Joël Matip, Douglas Luiz had a simple finish.
Liverpool’s response was immediate and the equaliser followed more loose defending, Mings erring this time, getting a Trent Alexander-Arnold free-kick stuck under his studs. Matip challenged, Diogo Jota went in and the ball broke to Virgil van Dijk, who shot and watched Martínez throw out a hand. Matip was on hand to prod home and it was fair to say that the touchpaper had been lit.
Villa brought a rare intensity and it rattled Liverpool, especially their defenders. Alisson shanked a clearance straight at Watkins and was fortunate to get away with it while Ings had to do better when he rose to meet a whipped John McGinn cross. It was not Ings’ night.
Liverpool came to worry Villa with their interchanges and overloads up the flanks and they had chances before the interval, ending the period in the ascendancy. Mané flickered but the big chance was created by Díaz and Alexander-Arnold for Naby Keïta. Unmarked 10 yards out and centrally placed, he completely missed his kick. Curtis Jones also shot straight at Martínez.
Gerrard and Klopp both sprinted for the tunnel at half-time, a neat reflection of the urgency of the contest, and it did not relent in the second half. Liverpool pressed and probed, Alexander-Arnold almost releasing Díaz with a lovely ball over the top.
Moments earlier, Alexander-Arnold had bent a free-kick just past the angle of post and crossbar; after it, he whistled another one wide. Ings played in Watkins and Tsimikas had to be quick to get across but Liverpool were in control, threatening the next goal.
It came when the 62nd-minute substitute Carney Chukwuemeka played Luiz into trouble and Thiago, also on by now, pounced. He won the ball and found Jota, who moved it to Díaz. Danger. Mané’s header was a beauty.