Liverpool’s title dreams are still alive, but this may well have been a costly night for Jurgen Klopp.
A day which started with Sadio Mane being linked with a move away from Anfield ended with the Senegal star doing what he does best; making the difference in another big game for the Reds.
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Mane’s second-half winner, his 22nd goal of the season, ensured Liverpool kept up the heat on Manchester City at the top of the Premier League table.
Their 2-1 win at Aston Villa does not take them above the reigning champions, but it keeps Pep Guardiola’s side honest. They go to Wolves on Wednesday, and West Ham on Sunday, knowing that any slip would leave them vulnerable heading into the final week of the campaign.
Liverpool had to do things the hard way at Villa Park, but recovered well from the shock of conceding a third-minute opener to Douglas Luiz.
They were level soon after through Joel Matip, and gradually seized control, grabbing the lead when Mane adjusted superbly to head home Luis Diaz’s cross in the 65th minute.
It meant Klopp was smiling at the final whistle, though there was big concern after Fabinho, one of his key men, was forced off inside half an hour through injury.
The Brazil international appeared to feel his hamstring as he chased back towards his own goal following a loose touch in midfield. He was replaced by Jordan Henderson and must now, at the very least, be a serious doubt for Saturday’s FA Cup final against Chelsea at Wembley.
That will worry Klopp, for sure, and even more so with the Champions League final on the horizon later this month.
Fabinho, remember, was signed immediately after Liverpool’s midfield had been given the runaround by Real Madrid’s in Kyiv in 2018, and with Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Casemiro still in situ, Klopp will be desperate to have him available in Paris on May 28.
At least the damage was not greater, Liverpool handling the setback well on the night, and then holding on in the closing stages as Villa looked to mount a fightback.
After their draw against Tottenham on Saturday, the three points were all that mattered here to Klopp and his players.
They were grateful, then, to Mane, who led the line superbly throughout.
With Mohamed Salah left on the bench, it was left to Mane, Diaz and Diogo Jota to carry the Reds’ threat, and all three combined for Liverpool’s winner; Jota releasing Diaz down the left, Diaz picking out Mane for a perfectly-guided finish into Emiliano Martinez’s left-hand corner.
With Salah’s form patchy, Mane has emerged as Klopp’s go-to forward in recent weeks, and his performances during the second-half of the campaign must surely be factored into any talks over his future, which as it stands are scheduled for the end of the campaign.
Replacing the 30-year-old will be close to impossible. How many players combine subtlety and physicality like he does? How many players continue to deliver elite-level performances, and elite-level numbers, year upon year?
Liverpool have recruited well with the likes of Diaz and Jota, but they would have to pull off something special to find themselves another Mane.
Yet again, it was the man from Senegal who stepped up when needed. On a night Liverpool had to win, Mane ensured they did.
Manchester City remain in the box seat, but Guardiola and his boys have a bit of work to do yet.