Reds miss out on Europa League football as Tottenham's victory over Birmingham secures top-five finish for Spurs
Liverpool failed to qualify for the Europa League after Stewart Downing’s strike saw Aston Villa end a Premier League season to forget on a high.
The England international slammed a Marc Albrighton cross home in the only goal of a game low on chances and quality. Liverpool never roused itself for the fight to reach Europe and seemed content to accept defeat at Villa Park.
Villa caretaker manager Gary McAllister kept faith with the starting side that beat Arsenal 2-1 last weekend. This meant goalkeeper Brad Friedel made his 400th Premier League appearance - with 25 of those while at today's opponents, Liverpool.
For the Reds, manager Kenny Dalglish chose to shake up the team that lost 2-0 to Tottenham Hotspur last Sunday and made three changes. Joe Cole was an unlikely starter along with previously injured duo Fabio Aurelio and Raul Meireles; Andy Carroll, Glen Johnson and Maxi Rodriguez made way.
Despite Liverpool's chase for a European spot, the match began with a whimper. Aimless procession was traded before contract rebel Nigel Reo-Coker snapped into Jay Spearing at velocity in the seventh minute.
Referee Lee Probert had no choice but to produce yellow. The midfielder hobbled off five minutes later and was replaced by Jonjo Shelvey.
The challenge shook Liverpool awake and Lucas forced Ashley Young to clear off his line from a corner in the 14th minute. Meireles' delivery from the right bounced off Martin Skrtel's back into the path of the Brazilian and his well hit half-volley was scrambled to safety.
Ex-Red Friedel then belied his 40-years to race out of his goal and clear a long ball from Lucas that arched over Villa's defense with Luis Suarez stationed to pounce in the 18th minute.
The match continued to amble along before Liverpool's lack of intensity was punished by Downing in the 33rd minute from Villa's first meaningful attack. Substitute Albrighton's cross from the right caused havoc in the visitor's defense, and with 18-year-old right-back John Flanagan out of position, the England international fired unopposed into the roof of Pepe Reina's net.
No response came from Liverpool for the final minutes of the first half as they seemed happy to accept no European football next term.
With a halftime jolt from Dalglish undoubtedly received, Liverpool started the second period in brighter fashion. In the 50th minute, a Suarez cross to the back post narrowly floated over Meireles’ head.
The loudest cheer, however, came upon news of Tottenham Hotspur gaining the lead against Villa’s local rivals Birmingham City. Roman Pavlyuchenko’s strike at the time condemned the Blues to the drop to the Championship and made the Russian the toast of the Holte End.The electric atmosphere inside Villa Park transferred to the players and only fine defending from Fabio Aurelio in the 54th minute prevented Downing from getting to Darren Bent’s dangerous cross.
With Manchester United shotstopper Edwin van der Sar’s retirement, Friedel will be the league’s elder statesman next term. In the 62nd minute he again proved his enduring prowess as he produced a remarkable save from Raul Meireles after the Portuguese seemed destined to convert a low Suarez cross after the Uruguayan had left James Collins and Luke Young on their backsides with a smart cutback.
At the other end of the pitch, Collins then failed to make decent contact with a deep Ashley Young free-kick and shinned wide with Reina’s goal at his mercy.
Another set play, this time from Fabio Aurelio on 70 minutes, narrowly arched wide of Friedel’s right post before Villa twice missed out on a second goal.
First, Ashley Young skipped past a wild challenge from Jamie Carragher in the 74th minute and played in Bent, but the £24 million dallied and fired a tame effort straight down Reina’s throat. Bent then redeemed himself three minutes later with a cross across the goal line that replacement Gabriel Agbonlahor was inches away from tapping home.
Agbonlahor was involved once more in the 83rd minute when his one-two with captain Stiliyan Petrov inside the Liverpool area - on his 500th appearance in British football – produced a smart save from Reina.
A miserable season for Villa ended on high note upon the final whistle as news of Birmingham’s Premier League demise dominated proceedings.