Neil Atkinson’s post-match review after Liverpool 1 Aston Villa 0 in the Premier League at Anfield, in the driving rain in L4…


YOU win. It is easier.

You win with a penalty. It is easier.

It is easier to do this: the referee isn’t good enough.

Listen. I am under no illusions that refereeing Premier League is a walk in the park. It’s one of the toughest jobs in show business. The game has got faster and faster. The demands are greater. I wouldn’t do it for a big clock and god only knows I am crying out for a big clock in ours. Nearly miss every train.

Further, it actually isn’t a barrel of laughs to come away from a game of football and feel someone isn’t up to a job. I am all about graft. It isn’t that the referee is lazy or unfit or even in a bad position a lot of the time. It’s that his judgement is wrong.

At half time I tweeted that his errors are all low grade. Someone asked what I mean by that. What I meant was this wasn’t about a big decision. He gets the big decision right in the end. It’s all the basic errors all half that he makes and went on to make. He gets so, so, so much wrong. The booing off at half time is just from implacable fury at him.

He makes everything hard work. And, in general, my good god, that was hard work. That repeated long ball to Ollie Watkins will be scarred on my mind for years to come. Villa searching for an out that was never quite there but was nearly there.

Liverpool find possession hard in the driving rain. Aston Villa battle like their manager once battled. They argue with the feckless referee, get in the goalkeeper’s way, pounce on stray balls, scream and maraud across Anfield.

The Aston Villa defensive structure is excellent. As is Wolverhampton Wanderers’s and Liverpool have seen them both off with a filthy single goal while deserving to score four or five. Liverpool keep the ball alive brilliantly, stretch almost every opportunity to its limits.

With Villa, there is an added extra. Steven Gerrard is here in all that is happening on the pitch. He’s here at the touchline kicking every ball with his will. I have missed watching Steven’s rage, but it was there in John McGinn at the back and there in Ashley Young upfront. Aston Villa are full of Steven Gerrard’s good rage, and they pushed at Liverpool’s possession game, robbing second balls and sending crosses flying.

Welcome home, Steven. Good to see you. Nice to know you are keeping well. Keeping that fire burning deep in your soul.

But Liverpool were just up to it. In case of any doubt, the rain was pounding down, bouncing off the pitch. It doesn’t entirely excuse missed chances, but it does make it much tougher for the team holding most of the possession. The referee being abject suits the poorer side too, but he was just bad rather than skewed.

Mistakes come that little bit more easily in the driving rain and the precision of Liverpool’s game loses its sharp edge. But skill and effective substitution gets us through this difficult, aggressive game.

We miss chances. We fluff chances to create chances. But we nonetheless had a very effective defence and midfield. The clean sheet tells a story here. The leadership in Liverpool comes from back to front, and they don’t give in to the referee, the defensive structure or the Gerrard rage. They have Jordan Henderson on the field, and Jurgen Klopp on the touchline, for the most part, calm, organised, and both asking for one more.

Joel Matip deserves huge praise. He uses his height to place the ball, but also finds pace for driving runs. Despite one crazy mash up late on in the second half, Virgil is on top of Watkins and Young.

Thiago is also ever present until substituted. He is in love with his tackling and, in a hard game to simply keep possession, seems to enjoy the winning back of the ball more than Liverpool usually have to. He loves his unlikely angles, surprising teammates and opposition alike at times.

Sadio Mane and Mo Salah are targeted by turns and it is the presence of a third troublemaker upfront that overwhelms teams. Chamberlain wasn’t quite it but Jota makes a difference when he comes on. This substitution is the most crucial. But once the penalty is put away, it is the reassuring presence of James Milner, crashing into them as soon as his feet hit the pitch, that shores up Liverpool’s position.

Another goal — or preferably three — would have been great. Would have been deserved. But we hold on because we are determined to hold on. Minamino makes it three for fresh legs, and these switches all do their job for Klopp’s Reds.

The battering rain starts up again and the referee is booed off while both sets of players and both managers are acclaimed. But Gerrard, rightly, doesn’t want to know. He has lost. Liverpool have won.

He walks briskly around Anfield hugging players, shaking hands, half taking it in. How strange for him. Not quite poignant. No one giving the obvious story, everyone wondering what could be to come. Everyone feeling in their bones what once was. His fire, his rage burning.

But in this present time, this Liverpool, these Reds, these heroes, they have fought for this. Gerrard’s lads are bit-part players. They have framed Liverpool’s want and need.

Three more points to quench our raging need till Thursday. One more hurdle cleared towards the thing we want next May.

That’s all that mattered. Liverpool win. Always let Liverpool win.

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