Neil Atkinson’s post-match review for The Anfield Wrap after Liverpool 1 Aston Villa 1 in the Premier League at Anfield…


THE Big Nine ends.

Not with a bang or a whimper, but with an anguished howl towards the officiating and the time-wasting.

The howl is understandable. But the truth is that too many of Liverpool’s key performers just didn’t perform well. Mo Salah, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Ibou Konate and Luis Diaz all have games you can describe kindly as middling.

For Diaz there is mitigation, but then there is legitimate criticism of selection. These, Aston Villa, are no mugs. They operate a very high line — it’s their game of risk and reward and they get rewarded. It would have suited Diogo Jota down to the ground, but it is easy to say that.

The rest, perhaps also including Curtis Jones and Jordan Henderson, just can’t find spark and maybe are just at the end of the run. You need those high eights to be able to provide it in this shape. It isn’t there — all spirit is willing, but flesh is weak.

Cody Gakpo is Liverpool’s best attacker, including when he drops back. He is a constant spark and he can fit wherever. I like him an awful lot and he can offer so much next year. He has a Liverpool brain.

Brains were hard to come by at times today. Liverpool fell into too many traps set by Villa, and the referee on one hand which they didn’t exploit on the other. The Villa player being down in the penalty area first half should have been licence for Liverpool to push right up but they did the opposite.

But it is important not to get too far ahead of ourselves in praising Villa; not dissimilar to Newcastle earlier in the season, had they actually continued to play they could have found a route to all three points. Instead, they commit wholeheartedly to what they have they hold.

The officiating is in crisis. I’ve never known it so unfit for purpose. This isn’t a VAR question or a rules question. It’s a general thing around competency especially when players are pushing every envelope going.

Football needs to be careful; the thing it has over other, less good sports — e.g. all of them apart from snooker and cricket, is fewer and shorter extended stoppages. These being increased and deepened makes you wonder precisely what you are paying for.

John McGinn plays well as does Boubacar Kamara. I love the cut of Jacob Ramsey’s jib and Matt Cash wins his battles. Again — a good side and I’m biased because I like Birmingham, but a good Aston Villa is good for the competition. This is a good Aston Villa and I hope they are rewarded with European football.

European football. This is the first time since 2018 that Liverpool end their home campaign in front of supporters without a European Cup final to look forward to. And that will be the case next season too. And that is a blow.

It is also a compliment. To Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Naby Keita. To Roberto Firmino and James Milner.

Firmino gets his goal and could have had another — he looked so quick and sharp, his heart pounding. Milner did ever so well after coming on. There’s a footballer who has won his battles.

Won our battles. They won our battles. From the minute Jürgen Klopp turned up there they have been. They have been the very best of us, part of putting Liverpool back on top in a way which doesn’t stop — it is a piece of work for every day.

Jordan Henderson’s programme notes are gorgeous. And they show what it all means.

For me what’s interesting in the guard of honour is that Alisson Becker doesn’t come out at first. Comes out later. Had a mate to look after.

He had a mate to look after there for a bit. It happens. In both of their ways James Milner and Roberto Firmino have made over 680 appearances because they looked after their mates in every moment. In every game.

Life is a collective pursuit. The first value to possess is togetherness. None of us can get through this thing on our own. Togetherness isn’t something to pay lip service to. It is an act, an action, it has to be lived, heart pounding, brain ticking, tear provoking.

Those two footballers epitomise what you need, what we need in life, two footballers who are theoretically diametrically opposed show what it is we need every day. Flair and graft, and shiny teeth, and bright clothes, and being prepared to go every last mile for the person next to you, and staying calm under pressure, and communicating and enjoying, enjoying, enjoying.

Living, living, living. Working, working, working. Living and working seriously, and living and working with enjoyment. All these moments are to be cherished and deepened by the act of cherishing, because eventually all we have is a supernova of moments, twinkling away and if those moments are shared then all the better.

They have been shared. They have been loved. They have made my life better, their lives better, your life better. All of us together. Better.

From James Milner and Roberto Firmino it was an act of intense care. Care, intensified is love.

And to be in love, my god, my hand to god, is a gift.

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