A fairytale ending for Roberto Firmino did not include one for Liverpool. The brilliant Brazilian said farewell to Anfield with a 90th-minute equaliser but in the 10 minutes of stoppage time that followed Liverpool were unable to conjure the comeback needed to keep their Champions League dream alive. The Europa League beckons and deservedly so, according to Jürgen Klopp.
A point that keeps Villa on course for a remarkable sixth or seventh place finish – considering where they languished when Unai Emery took over in October – carried more weight for Newcastle and Manchester United than Liverpool. Both would have qualified for the Champions League but for the 110th goal of Firmino’s glorious Liverpool career. Instead, both need a point from their final two games to secure a top-four finish. Liverpool’s prospects are effectively over after a storming run of seven successive Premier League wins was halted by Emery’s improving side.
Klopp said: “The whole season was one where we deserved to qualify for the Europa League and not the Champions League. For too long we were not ourselves. We made it pretty exciting, which I didn’t think was possible seven weeks ago.
“Our people enjoyed it as well. You could see today they were not angry with us. They are looking forward to a new Premier League and Europa League season and so am I.”
Villa deservedly led at half-time through Jacob Ramsey’s volley, struck minutes after Ollie Watkins had missed from the penalty spot, but the second half was a different story as Liverpool finally hit their rhythm. Referee John Brooks disallowed a Cody Gakpo goal for a debatable offside before Firmino sparked pandemonium with his leveller.
“The last 10 minutes were difficult to play because they were playing with their crowd,” said the Villa manager. “But we defended very well. I told the team three months ago they should have something to play for on the last day at home to Brighton.
“Seventh can get Europe and we will be very motivated.”
Villa passed their way confidently through the Liverpool press in the first half. Klopp’s anxiety was clear up in the Main Stand, where he was confined after receiving a two-match touchline ban for improper conduct after last month’s win over Tottenham.
The fourth official who Klopp ran up to that day, Brooks, was given no option but to award a penalty when Ibrahima Konaté sent Watkins tumbling in the box after John McGinn had released the forward. Villa’s leading goalscorer never looked confident as he sized up the challenge of beating Alisson and placed the spot-kick yards wide.
The reprieve failed to ignite the Liverpool performance. Five minutes later they were behind having failed to deal with a long throw from Lucas Digne. Fabinho, one of the few in red to reach their level in the first half, Virgil van Dijk and Konaté all attempted to head clear but found Villa shirts. Leon Bailey’s shot cannoned off Curtis Jones into the path of Douglas Luiz, who curled a delightful cross to the back post where Ramsey ghosted in to volley low beyond Alisson.
VAR then made its miserable presence felt to aggravate Anfield. Tyrone Mings escaped with a booking for raking three lines into Gakpo’s chest with a high boot. VAR looked at a possible red card offence but found the defender had touched the ball before slicing open Gakpo’s shirt.
The real blow to Liverpool, however, arrived when a Gakpo equaliser was disallowed for offside 10 minutes into the second half.
The January signing pounced from close range after Mings blocked a Konaté shot on the goalline. VAR sent Brooks to the pitchside monitor, where Van Dijk was found to have been offside when Luis Díaz headed Trent Alexander-Arnold’s cross back across goal via a deflection off Ezri Konsa. Brooks’ decision to disallow the goal, on the basis Konsa’s touch was unintentional, met with a predictable response from the home faithful.
They were cheered by the sight of Firmino replacing Diaz. In the final minute of normal time Liverpool worked a free-kick from left to right to Mohamed Salah, who flicked a cross into the area for Firmino to convert with a close range volley. The forward sank to his knees in prayer, Van Dijk paid tribute by replicating Firmino’s kung fu goal celebration, but there would be no great rescue act.