Inspired as they are so often by the example of their captain, Steven Gerrard, Liverpool drew level with United on points here. With two games left as opposed to Liverpool's one, the odds are still heavily in United's favour. But Benitez draws gratification from taking the fight for second place into the last week of the season.
"It will be difficult," he said. "Manchester United have two home games. But at least we are close to them." Villa end their dismal season safe, thanks to Birmingham's solitary point. But it will be one to forget. They needed to win both their remaining matches merely to equal their lowest points total in the Premiership.
Villa began with five across the middle, outnumbering their opponents, but still gave Xabi Alonso time to launch a trademark through-ball. His target, Fernando Morientes, received it in free space and though Gary Cahill got to him, the Spaniard turned the defender one way and then another before stroking the ball past Thomas Sorensen.
For Liverpool, on the other hand, it was the continuation of what was becoming a hugely encouraging day following United's defeat at Chelsea.
Villa, with Steven Davis back from injury to restore creative quality to their midfield, responded positively. Indeed, there should have been an equaliser in the 34th minute when James Milner, on the right flank, looked up to see Gareth Barry positioning himself for a far-post cross. Milner found him but his header bounced into the ground and over the bar. Arguably, Liverpool were flirting with complacency.
Villa were brighter than might have been expected yet the home side ought to have taken control. Instead, with Juan Pablo Angel on for the disappointing Milan Baros, Villa drew level.
This time it was Liverpool's defending that looked shaky. Milner's cross from the right was missed by Angel at the near post but his movement was enough to wrong-foot several in red shirts, allowing the ball to reach Barry at the far post and set up a simple goal.
Gratifying as it was for the visitors, it was a goal that could not have been more effective as a wake-up call for the home side. Within three minutes, Liverpool had restored their advantage. Anticipating Alonso's low, driven corner from the right, Gerrard darted to the corner of the six-yard box unchallenged to whip the ball past a startled Sorensen.
"The game was decided by a world-class player," the Villa manager, David O'Leary, said. No one was arguing with that, particularly after the Liverpool leader had put the issue beyond all doubt with his second goal, the 21st of a season that began last July. This one was a real screamer, delivered right-footed along a diagonal path of almost 30 yards. Sorensen dived in its general direction but he might as well not have bothered.Reuse content