Gerrard's Anfield return ends in frustration as Salah slays the Liverpool king

Steven Gerrard Mohamed Salah Liverpool vs Aston Villa Premier League 2021-22Getty Images

How fitting that one King’s return should be decided by another.

In the end Anfield, finally, saluted Steven Gerrard. Their hero for a lifetime, but their enemy for the day.

“He’ll pass the ball 40 yards,” sang the Kop. “He’s big and he’s f*cking hard, Steve Gerrard, Gerrard.”

Easy to be magnanimous in victory, of course. Liverpool needed to dig deep to ensure Gerrard’s return ended in defeat. Mohamed Salah’s penalty, midway through the second half, settled an attritional contest against a dogged Aston Villa side.

A priceless three points, on a day when all three of the Premier League title contenders needed spot-kicks to win narrow contests. The title race is on and it's nervy - even in December.

As Gerrard acknowledged the Villa fans tucked away in the Anfield Road end, Jurgen Klopp delivered his trademark fist pumps down at the Kop. He knew how important this was; today and going forward.

For Gerrard there was only frustration. He may be a Liverpool legend, perhaps the greatest player in the club’s storied history, but he wasn’t here to reminisce and have his belly rubbed. He came to win.

He knew that he would be the story of the day, no matter what. He knew that all eyes would be on him - in the tunnel, in the dugout and in the technical area. “That’s just the way it will be,” warned Klopp on Friday.

Gerrard handled it well. That steely glare was back, that furrowed brow that Liverpudlians will remember oh so well. No emotion, strictly business.

His entrance was understated. He didn’t join his team for their warm-up, as Klopp always does, instead emerging behind his players a couple of minutes before kick off.

There was, of course, a warm ovation, though the chants were of ‘Liverpool, Liverpool’ - a reminder that they, too, were here with a purpose. 

Eight minutes in, Gerrard’s name began to ring out on the Kop, although it was quickly drowned out. Not the time or the place, not when the game is goalless and Emi Martinez is taking an age over every goal kick. 

Anfield was a bear pit at times, not helped by an awful refereeing display from Stuart Attwell. The official managed to infuriate both sets of players, both managers and both sets of supporters on the day. “Horrific,” was the verdict of one Reds fan as he made his way out past the press box at the end.

The decision which counted went his side’s way, though, with Tyrone Mings adjudged to have fouled Salah as he advanced into the box down the right. “Salah fouls him first,” suggested Gerrard afterwards. “It was a soft penalty.”

Soft or not, it was dispatched, Salah notching his 21st goal of the season in all competitions. He has netted his last 15 Premier League penalties, the first player to achieve that feat since Matt Le Tissier in 2000. Record after record, for Liverpool’s Egyptian star.

Klopp felt his side merited the points, though he admitted the last 15 minutes, when Vulla came on strongly, were nervous. “Now with hindsight, I think I should have thrown more at it,” suggested Gerrard, who felt his side might have had a penalty of their own when Danny Ings clashed with Alisson Becker.

“Ultimately the game’s decided by a penalty,” the Villa boss continued. “Liverpool got theirs, we didn’t get ours. It feels harsh.”

Article continues below

Plenty will raise a smile, of course, at Gerrard bemoaning a soft penalty in front of the Kop. How many of those did he benefit from down the years? How many times was it him, and not Salah, breaking visitors’ hearts?

Not today. Today he was on the other side of the fence. Steven Gerrard lost at Anfield and the Liverpool fans loved it. 

Sounds strange, doesn't it?