Steven Gerrard’s penalty sealed a second-half turnaround by Liverpool in a 2-1 win over relegation-threatened Aston Villa on Sunday, boosting his team’s hopes of playing in Europe next season.
Villa, which is now third from bottom with seven games to play, took a halftime lead thanks to Belgium striker Christian Benteke’s 14th goal of the campaign but Jordan Henderson started Liverpool’s comeback with an equalizer in the 47th minute.
Luis Suarez then tumbled in the area under a challenge from Nathan Baker 13 minutes later and Gerrard converted the spot-kick into the bottom corner to keep Liverpool five points behind fifth-place Arsenal, which occupies the final European position.
The Reds will require an almost-perfect end to the season, and for a few of the teams above it to slip up, to qualify for either the Champions League or Europa League next season.
“Sometimes you can let the season fizzle out but we don’t want to do that,” said Gerrard, who needed an injection in his heel to make the starting line-up before scoring his 98th Premier League goal. “We want to see if we can nick fifth or sixth in the table.”
The visitors had trouble in the first half coping with Benteke, who enhanced his reputation as one of the signings of the offseason by giving Liverpool’s defense a torrid time and capping it with a well-taken goal in the 31st.
Gabriel Agbonlahor cushioned a long ball over the top with his right thigh into the path of his strike partner, who volleyed low past Pepe Reina for his ninth goal in 11 league games.
Agbonlahor earlier had a great chance saved from point-blank range by Reina but Liverpool was always dangerous at the other end, with goalkeeper Brad Guzan twice denying Suarez.
The cutting edge arrived immediately after the break, with Philippe Coutinho finding the sprinting Henderson with a defense-splitting pass and the midfielder finished into the corner.
Liverpool was rampant over the next 15 minutes, Coutinho shooting wide when clean through and Glen Johnson hitting the post with a deflected shot before Suarez was brought down by a clumsy sliding tackle from Baker. Guzan dived the right way for Gerrard’s low penalty but couldn’t keep it out.
“I was glad to get on the score-sheet with the penalty but the header at the other end probably won us the game,” Gerrard said.
Wigan’s 1-0 victory against Norwich on Saturday dropped Villa into the relegation zone on goal difference.
UNITED BEATS SUNDERLAND, MAINTAINS TITLE SURGE
Manchester United relied on a first-half own goal by Titus Bramble to beat Sunderland 1-0 on Saturday, securing a seventh straight Premier League win to inch the runaway leaders closer to a 20th English title.
Hours after the loss, Sunderland announced the departure of manager Martin O’Neill, with the club just a point clear of relegation trouble with seven matches left.
Robin van Persie’s shot in the 27th minute was heading wide but Bramble stuck out a leg and deflected the ball into the corner of his own net, rewarding United for its early dominance at the Stadium of Light.
The visitors, who came into the match holding a 15-point cushion at the top, sat back in the second half but held on relatively comfortably. Only the biggest meltdown in Premier League history would stop them reclaiming the title off second-place Manchester City.
United has become the first top-division team in the history of English football to win 25 of its first 30 league games, and it has a real chance of breaking Chelsea’s record from the 2004-05 season of 95 points from a single campaign. The team has 77 points with eight games remaining.
Van Persie’s streak without a United goal stretches to eight matches—he scored three times in two games for the Netherlands in the international break—but he was integral in the only goal here, firing in a shot that deflected first off Phil Bardsley and then more decisively off the outstretched right thigh of Bramble and into the corner.
That capped a bright start to the match by Van Persie, who almost doubled the advantage late in the first half when he exchanged passes with the excellent Carrick only to volley just over the bar.
s “This team is just full of winners,” said Van Persie, who is likely to win the English title for the first time in his first season with United. “Everyone knows what he has to do.”
United, meanwhile, can virtually seal the title with a home win over City in its next match on April 8.
“It was an important win,” Ferguson said, “as it means we go into the Manchester City game with at least a 15-point lead.”