Liverpool will not be playing in the Europa League next season after all. They needed to better Tottenham Hotspur's result at home to Birmingham City if they were to sneak fifth place, so a 1-0 defeat was never going to be enough to book a tour of the Euro-periphery. Aston Villa deservedly won a match played at end-of-term pace.
"I think we ran out of steam and out of players," said Kenny Dalglish, after a defeat that ensured Liverpool's absence from European competition for the first time in 12 years. "But we've not failed to qualify because of today. We've not qualified because we had such a bad start to the season."
On a generally demob-happy afternoon the opening minutes of the match saw Villa Park treated to the sound of Gérard Houllier's name being sung – albeit by the supporters in the visitors' section, which included the injured captain, Steven Gerrard. Rumours that Houllier might reappear after recovering from illness proved optimistic. Instead it was Gary McAllister who sent out the home team in a Christmas tree-style formation, with Stewart Downing and Ashley Young on the flanks behind Darren Bent.
After a sleepy start the first chance arrived on 14 minutes, Young hacking Martin Skrtel's header from a corner off the line. After that Villa dominated possession, with Downing demonstrating the elegant, direct running that helped secure him the Villa fans' player of the year award. Downing it was who scored the winning goal, blasting a bouncing ball into the roof of the net from a narrow angle on the left after Marc Albrighton's teasing cross from the right.
The second-biggest cheer of the afternoon arrived seven minutes into the second half, with the news that Birmingham had gone behind at Tottenham. With the spectre of a cut-price Euro-tour in retreat, Liverpool woke up. On the hour Luis Suárez left Kyle Walker and James Collins on the turf with a single jink and played in Raul Meireles. His low shot was well saved by Brad Friedel.
Meireles and Lucas Leiva controlled the midfield for much of the second half, but it was Villa who went closest, on 77 minutes, when Gabriel Agbonlahor failed to connect with Bent's cross in front of an open goal. All that remained was for Young, who has been strongly linked with a move to Liverpool, to leave the field in stoppage time to a mutual ovation that seemed to suggest a fond farewell
"We're going to try and keep him," McAllister said afterwards.
Asked about Young and Downing, Dalglish was poker-faced. "I couldn't tell you about their players. I was watching our own," he said. He also promised that any signings would be highly selective: "They'll have to be a lot better than what we've already got."