This should be payback time. Liverpool should be drooling with anticipation about Aston Villa’s visit to Anfield on Saturday. Seven months on from the 7-2 thrashing at Villa Park, Jurgen Klopp’s side have a chance to settle scores.
Unfortunately, giving Dean Smith’s team a taste of their own medicine is way down the agenda. Forget revenge, just get three points. The battle for the top four takes precedence, especially after the 3-1 defeat by Real Madrid in the Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano on Tuesday. All those distant, romantic dreams of winning the Champions League with a substandard side in Istanbul (again) need to be put aside. The top four is Liverpool’s target.
For Liverpool, it would still be sweet to trounce Villa. When any team gets mauled by the opposition it hurts. When it happens to reigning champions the urge to hit back is strong.
In December 1983, Liverpool’s title-holders went to Highfield Road and were torn apart by Coventry City. The home side were three up at half time and the final score, 4-0, did not accurately reflect the shambolic performance by Joe Fagan’s team. At the break Liverpool’s dressing room was in uproar. Cups were thrown, shoving matches took place and even Graeme Souness and Kenny Dalglish, friends and room-mates, were involved in a heated confrontation. “It went out of control,” Craig Johnston, the substitute that day and thus on the outside of half-time recriminations, said. “The big beasts were really going for it. It was excellent viewing.”
When the return fixture came round in May, Liverpool were waiting. “It was marked on the calendar the day after Highfield Road,” Souness said. “We were ready.”
At Anfield, Coventry got their comeuppance. Liverpool romped to a 5-0 victory and were not shy about letting their opponents know that retribution was sweet. The Coventry players got an earful at the final whistle.
Any big defeat lurks in the mind of players and managers. “They hurt,” Dalglish said. “But nearly every year we got hammered once. We moved on and put it behind us.”
“There’d be games when it didn’t happen for you,” Steve Nicol said. “Move on, win the next one. The mentality was incredible.”
Therein lies the problem for the team formerly known as mentality monsters. Unlike so many vintage Liverpool sides they have not bounced back and continued in the vein that won them the title.
The game at Villa Park seemed like an aberration in October. In retrospect it was a warning sign. Injuries were not an excuse back then. Joe Gomez and Virgil van Dijk were present in the defence. Klopp deployed the same midfield – Naby Keita, Fabinho and Georginio Wijnaldum – as in Madrid. Diogo Jota was in the front three.
There had been earlier indications that things were not quite right. They lost four out of six games before the break caused by the pandemic last year. They never fired properly after the season was resumed in June.
It may be that the system that worked so well for two years had been thoroughly examined and countered by rival managers. The players might have run out of steam because of the demanding workload and the relatively weak squad. Nonetheless, the experience at Villa Park was written off too easily as a freak result. There were underlying problems even before the injuries began to build up.
There are obvious points of attack for opponents. Real aimed at the space behind Trent Alexander-Arnold from the first whistle in Madrid and it paid off. Villa will likely do the same. The full-backs gave the champions their forward thrust during the previous two seasons and now that tactic is failing. Klopp needs more offensive production from a midfield that is not used to scoring goals or generating chances. A wide rethink of the way the team operates – at least until the injuries heal – is needed. The old ways are not working. The rest of the campaign will be a huge test for Klopp and his players.
Revenge against Villa is a luxury. Any sort of victory is a necessity. Vengeance can wait until Liverpool regain some stability.
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