Birmingham: Liverpool kept their Premier League title hopes alive as Sadio Mane’s winner beat Aston Villa 2-1 on Tuesday to move level on points with Manchester City at the top of the table.
The Reds quickly made amends for a slow start as Joel Matip cancelled out Douglas Luiz’s opener inside six minutes.
Mane’s fine header 25 minutes from time then did enough to keep the pressure on City, who have a game in hand away to Wolves on Wednesday.
However, Liverpool’s narrow margin of victory keeps Pep Guardiola’s men top on goal difference.
Victory also came at a cost for Jurgen Klopp’s men, who lost Fabinho to a muscle injury that is likely to rule him out of both Saturday’s FA Cup final and the Champions League final against Real Madrid on May 28.
With one eye on Wembley, Klopp rolled the dice with his team selection as Mohamed Salah and Thiago Alcantara were left on the bench, while there was no place in the squad for Andy Robertson.
The visitors looked like a much-changed side as Villa sprang out of the traps and caught them cold.
Alisson Becker had already denied Ollie Watkins by the time Steven Gerrard’s men took the lead on three minutes.
Luiz’s header was parried by Alisson, but only back into the path of his Brazilian international teammate to hammer the rebound high into the net.
Villa won this fixture 7-2 last season, but Liverpool this time bounced straight back from the early blow of conceding.
The hosts did not deal with a free-kick into the box and the ball eventually broke for Virgil van Dijk to square for his centre-back partner Matip to apply the finishing touch.
Chances continued to come at both ends in a frantic first half.
Mane headed inches wide for Liverpool before Danny Ings at the other end just failed to keep his header down from Lucas Digne’s inviting cross.
Liverpool’s heavy schedule began to show physically when Fabinho limped off with a hamstring injury midway through the first half.
The sale of Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona in 2018 helped Liverpool fund the signings of Alisson, Van Dijk and Fabinho.
As the Reds have gone from strength-to-strength in the four-and-a-half years since, Coutinho’s career has faded and he was largely anonymous in his first appearance against his former club since returning to English football.
Only a complete miskick from Naby Keita with the goal gaping kept the scores level at the break.
However, Liverpool went through the gears in the second period to show the gulf in class between the sides.
Luis Diaz’s arrival in January has played a huge part in keeping Klopp’s men in contention for four trophies.
The Colombian created the winner as he teased Tyrone Mings before delivering a pinpoint cross for Mane to head in his 22nd goal of the season.
There were still nervy moments for Liverpool to see out in the final quarter as Villa sought to expose their high line.
Twice Ings failed to capitalise when played through on goal before being flagged offside when he did finally put the ball in the net.
But Liverpool held on and will hope Gerrard can finally come to their rescue in a title race.
Gerrard famously never won a league title during his decorated playing career at Anfield, but will take Villa to face City at the Etihad on the final day of the season.