Liverpool have bounced back from their Carabao Cup exit at the hands of Manchester City last week by continuing their resurgence at the expense of Aston Villa, leaving Birmingham with the three points in the bag.
Mohamed Salah broke the deadlock in the fifth minute and Virgil van Dijk added the second in the 37th. Villa pushed harder at the start of the second half and eventually pulled one back through Ollie Watkins just before the hour mark, but their strength failed towards the end and 18-year-old Stefan Bajcetic bagged his first Premier League goal to put the game decidedly beyond the home side.
Once it became clear Liverpool would go on to win this match, most of their supporters will have opened the Premier League table to check the improvement of their team’s position after what can only be described as an underwhelming first few months of the season.
And at the moment, the table says Liverpool are sixth with 25 points from 15 matches, seven wins, four draws and four defeats. That’s five points off Tottenham Hotspur in fourth, with a game in hand on the North Londoners on one hand, and arch-rivals Manchester United squeezed in between with a game in hand on Liverpool on the other.
Manager Jurgen Klopp has already ruled his team out of the title race – obviously a realistic assessment by the German tactician at this point, and the 19-time English and six-time European champions will probably be extremely satisfied if they finish inside the top four. In order for that to happen, they must make the most of the upcoming matches against Leicester City, Brentford and Brighton and Hove Albion, before Chelsea come to Anfield.
As for Aston Villa, this game has left them in 12th place, five points above the relegation zone. With all due respect to the team recently taken over by Unai Emery, losing to Liverpool, even at their own stadium, can hardly be considered a disaster, especially considering that they actually put in a very decent effort.
The minds of Emery and his players will have already turned to Sunday and their trip to North London, where they’ll try to help Liverpool in the top-four race by knocking some points away from Spurs, and even if they don’t, that won’t be a disaster either. It’s the matches against Wolverhampton Wanderers, Leeds United and Southampton which follow in January, that they must be looking to make count.
Hardly a Liverpool game goes by these days without Darwin Nunez drawing criticism and continuing to impress in certain aspects of the game in equal measure.
Just like against Manchester City on Thursday, the Uruguayan striker wasted a number of high-quality chances to get on the scoresheet, but those who doubt he will ever deliver for Liverpool cannot reasonably disregard the fact that he continues to get himself into those chances. Game after game, the 24-year-old shows great sense for movement, blistering pace, and a formidable level of perseverance which in this game resulted in Bajcetic’s goal. All that’s missing is composure and just a bit of luck for him start tearing up opposition nets on a regular basis.
There’s plenty of time for Nunez to become the man Klopp and the rest of Liverpool hope he will become – the focal point of their attack and the club’s main goalscorer – in the coming seasons. After all, Liverpool icon Sir Kenny Dalglish once described a certain Luis Suarez as an excellent forward who desperately needs to work on his finishing.
The Premier League has attracted plenty of talent from other leagues across Europe in recent transfer windows, even very big clubs in those leagues, clubs that frequently play in the Champions League. A sought-after prospect during his four years at Bayer Leverkusen, Leon Bailey joined Aston Villa in the summer of 2021 for reportedly just over €30 million – a perfect example of a transfer which, quite frankly, seems a strange choice, especially on a four-year contract at the age of 24.
He must’ve been aware that he would not be able to leave Villa Park before turning at least 27 unless he becomes one of the best in the game, and at that age, the top European clubs aren’t likely to be interested anymore.
Most players who choose such a path stagnate and eventually regress, and that, for all his talent, seems to be the case with the Jamaica international. In 15 Premier League matches this term, he found the back of the net just three times and made two assists. Not too bad, of course, but a such a talented winger about to enter his prime would’ve been expected to do much more.
This game was certainly one Bailey will want to forget as quickly as possible. Like Nunez for Liverpool, he got into some great chances to score and missed, but unlike Nunez who never seemed to waver in his intention and confidence to do something right, Bailey looked paler and more shaken with each wasted opportunity. Not that there were many options on the bench for Villa, but it’s still a bit of a mystery why Emery waited until five minutes before the end to replace him.
The path that has brought Watkins to Aston Villa in 2020 has obviously been a different one. The 26-year-old striker made his way through Exeter City and Brentford (during the Bees’ days in the Championship) to finally earn the role of a regular starter at a relatively stable Premier League club.
Since then, he’s been working very hard to prove himself against the best, and Liverpool should know well by now how badly his quality can hurt them; this game was another reminder of it. Even defenders like Virgil van Dijk and Joel Matip never have an easy day at the office with him in or around the box.
The problem for Watkins at this point is obviously his age. Were he 22, top clubs would surely be lining up to sign him, throwing huge offers Villa’s way just to tempt them into selling. As it is, he would probably have to settle for a long-term backup role at a top club, like Richarlison did when he left Everton for Spurs this summer, for example.
Be that as it may, Watkins has still managed seven caps for England, scoring twice, and being such a fierce fighter, nobody sensible would bet against him getting into the national side again in the next couple of years, even perhaps at a major tournament.
It seems Liverpool hit the jackpot when they signed this youngster from Celta Vigo in 2021. It has been said, with good reason too, that they don’t have a proper alternative for Fabinho at the base of midfield, but at the age of 18, Bajcetic is rather well in proving that claim wrong.
Klopp recently said Bajcetic, who played for Spain at several youth levels but still has the option of representing Serbia as a senior international, played with the maturity of a 25-year-old, and the teenager continues to prove the manager right.
Having come on to provide additional stability alongside Fabinho with 11 minutes of this game left, Bajcetic wasn’t on the pitch even two minutes when he reacted with unbelievable composure to the scramble inside the Villa box caused by Nunez’s perseverance and poked the ball into the net to get his maiden Premier League goal.
Look out for this boy.
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