• Draw means Reds taken four points in seven league games
• Alex McLeish ‘so proud’ of defence dealing with Luis Suárez
Even in this season of Gary Speed’s suicide, Fabrice Muamba’s collapse and Stilian Petrov’s announcement that he is suffering from leukaemia, there is nothing quite as emotive as the minute when Anfield falls silent for Hillsborough.
As he stood amid the stillness, Alex McLeish had every reason to imagine he would be beaten. There was a part of the Aston Villa manager who imagined his makeshift team of academy products might be overwhelmed. The last time he had come to Anfield, with Birmingham City, they lost 5-0.
“Liverpool’s players are only human, they have two legs like us,” he said. “But they took a bit of stick during the week and, with the Hillsborough anniversary, I thought to myself: ‘What a week to get Liverpool.’”
By any logical method of accounting, the kind that sent Kenny Dalglish over the edge on the final whistle, Aston Villa ought to have been swept away. Liverpool had 21 shots to Villa’s five, 11 corners to three and struck the frame of the goal a further four times to take this season’s tally to 28. Dalglish looked as if he could stand it no more. Liverpool were eighth, not far from where he found them, 15 months and £110m ago, and on Tuesday they travel to Blackburn, where Roy Hodgson’s Anfield regime was ended by a 3-1 defeat.
It was while Hodgson was still clinging to power that Damien Comolli, the Liverpool director of football, began the negotiations that would lead to Luis Suárez’s arrival at Anfield, with Dalglish describing him as a “wee, smiley guy”. There have been fewer smiles lately and for Dalglish, who has made an enormous and sometimes wrongly directed emotional investment in the Uruguayan, it has been paid back by bans and bookings, even if the latest – for diving – left him incandescent.
“When Luis goes down, it’s because Stephen Ireland has trodden on him. If someone stands on your foot with studs on, it’s going to be quite painful,” he said. “You just need to keep going and make sure the football club retains the integrity it has. If other people have to look at themselves [in order] to find they have integrity; then that’s fine. We know we have got it and maybe we are going about it the wrong way. Maybe we should shout our mouths off.”
That Aston Villa left Anfield with a point that McLeish did not expect when he stood to honour the dead was due to something he understands instinctively – the art of central-defending. James Collins and the rest of the Aston Villa back four were at least as responsible for Liverpool’s draw as any decision made by the referee.
McLeish said Suárez is a clever striker and, asked if he meant “clever” in the way Diego Maradona was “clever”, he smiled and said he would like him in his team. El Diego described some of his more dubious methods as “pickpocketing”. Suárez, too, has something of what in South America is called viveza – the ability to win with a bit of cunning. “He is world class,” said McLeish. “I am so proud of the way my two centre-halves handled him because he is so creative.
“We talked about having to watch him when we had the ball so there were no quick breaks from Liverpool. He is such a good player that you will never pin him down for 90 minutes.” Villa managed 80.
McLeish, who shared a dressing room with Dalglish during the 1982 World Cup, knows precisely what can happen to a club after they win the Carling Cup. Birmingham were 14th when they snatched the trophy from Arsenal at Wembley in 2011. They finished up being relegated after picking up nine points from their final dozen12 games. Liverpool have taken four in seven which, as the Scot knows, is relegation form.
Daniel Agger, who had not played since Liverpool lifted the trophy in February, and who made Suárez’s equaliser, said: “Nobody is even thinking of the FA Cup semi-final with Everton [on Saturday].” It had better start crossing their minds soon because for Liverpool it is all that the season has left.
Man of the match James Collins (Aston Villa)