By Carl Markham, PA
Roberto Firmino signed off in fairytale fashion with a goal in front of the Kop on his final Anfield appearance but his 89th-minute strike only earned a 1-1 draw against Aston Villa to leave Liverpool’s Champions League hopes hanging by a thread.
The Brazil international, leaving after eight years, came off the bench to an emotional welcome and responded in perfect fashion with his 110th goal in his 361st and – most likely – penultimate appearance.
That he could not inspire the winner to keep their top-four hopes within realistic reach would have been a massive disappointment to a player who has played an integral part in the huge success under Jurgen Klopp.
But the hosts took too long to respond to Jacob Ramsey’s goal in the first half on a frustrating afternoon as a nine-match winning run came to an end.
Liverpool have not spent a single day in the top four this season and they are now highly unlikely to – barring an aberration – as United’s win at Bournemouth means they need only a point from two matches as the farewell party primarily for stalwarts Firmino and James Milner, but also Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Naby Keita, fell flat.
Klopp had to watch from the stands as he served a one-match touchline ban, and it was probably best he was up there as his side endured an infuriating afternoon in more ways than one.
Referee John Brooks, who was the fourth official in whose face Klopp celebrated against Tottenham which led to his suspension for this game, made a number of decisions that irked the home fans, who believed Aston Villa were time wasting.
Liverpool may argue he made a mistake in not sending off Tyrone Mings for a chest-high challenge on Cody Gakpo in the first half which ripped the Liverpool attacker’s shirt, although the decision was backed by VAR.
They might also complain over Brooks’ interpretation of Ezri Konsa not deliberately playing the ball, meaning Virgil Van Dijk was ruled offside for what would have been Gakpo’s equaliser early in the second half.
But, in truth, Liverpool lacked ideas in the final third, too often sending hopeful crosses into the arms of Emi Martinez as Villa’s well-marshalled defence denied them space in and around the penalty area.
Even Trent Alexander-Arnold’s radar appeared to be off as his usually reliable delivery misfired.
And by the 27th minute the visitors had something to hold on to after Ramsey had put them ahead.
That honour should have gone to Ollie Watkins seven minutes earlier when he raced on to John McGinn’s flick over the top to induce an ill-judged tackle from Ibrahima Konate, but the striker placed his penalty well wide.
Ramsey was not so wasteful as his well-executed volley from Douglas Luiz’s cross whistled past Alisson, who succeeded in denying Ramsey from a well-worked free-kick routine minutes later.
However, Villa, who succeeded in their bid to frustrate both their opponents and most of Anfield, appeared fortunate to finish the half still with 11 men on the pitch.
Brooks only booked Mings for his challenge on Gakpo, verified by VAR who also turned down appeals for a penalty for Luiz’s challenge on Jordan Henderson, as Liverpool closed the half without a shot on target.
Gakpo thought he had an equaliser after the restart when he followed in a rebound from a Konate shot which was blocked on the line by Mings, but VAR invited Brooks to view the pitchside monitor and he overturned his original decision.
The Premier League’s subsequent explanation was that Van Dijk was in an offside position from Diaz’s header and Brooks determined it was a deflection off Konsa and not a deliberate attempt to play the ball.
Still Liverpool pushed without genuinely testing Martinez and even the introductions of Firmino, along with fellow departee Milner, Kostas Tsimikas and Diogo Jota, failed to raise the threat level.
That was until the 89th minute, when the Brazil international slid in to convert Salah’s low cross to sign off in style and set up a frantic spell in 10 minutes of added time. However, as with much of their season, they fell just short.