For Roberto Firmino, an Anfield farewell included a presentation by Sir Kenny Dalglish and a guard of honour from his teammates, with Cody Gakpo bowing in salute to Liverpool’s definitive false nine. Anfield sang his song – “Si Senor” – for one last time; or, at least, a final occasion with Firmino in the team, on the pitch at home. Even as fine a servant as James Milner also said goodbye, he was overshadowed by Firmino, which the self-effacing Yorkshireman may prefer.
But, even at the end, Firmino offered more evidence to illustrate why he is among the most popular Liverpool players of his generation; perhaps of any. This was not the perfect goodbye; not without victory, not as Liverpool’s last ambition for a dispiriting season became still more remote. But there was a perfection of sorts for Firmino; the rousing ovation when he came on was far from the loudest of the afternoon, because Liverpool still had a last goal from him to celebrate.
Firmino’s indefatigable approach is a reason why he was indispensable and integral. If there was no such thing as a lost cause for him, he ensured he did not finish off with a defeat. Aston Villa were leading at Anfield, and deservedly so. But Firmino and Milner entered with 20 minutes to go – though Villa’s timewasting meant their cameos lasted for half an hour – and as injury time beckoned, as it seemed Liverpool’s band of Champions League winners would see their faint hopes of a top-four finish disappear altogether, the former had one last service to perform.
Firmino has created many a goal for Mohamed Salah over the years. A favour was returned, the Egyptian bending in a cross with the outside of his left foot, the Brazilian timing his run to volley it in. Selfless for so long, Firmino has become more potent this season; a 12th goal of an injury-hit campaign gives him a total he has not topped since 2018-19. If Liverpool will miss his incessant running, if they will miss his capacity to create goals for others, they will also miss his ability to find the net himself.
It was his 110th and potentially last goal for them; the 109th was a dramatic late equaliser at Anfield, too, frustrating Arsenal. He has altered the title race and the battle for Europe: in eight days’ time, it may have a greater effect on Villa. Liverpool’s fate is almost sealed; denied an eighth successive win, they have prolonged the fight for the Champions League places, but only mathematically.
It may be a formality for Manchester United and Newcastle to qualify for the Champions League now but, until Firmino intervened, they would be there already. It prolongs the top-four battle but it has altered, shifting the balance still further in the favour of the two Uniteds.
An inability to find a winner in added time means that Liverpool’s season will end in anti-climax. Firmino at least ensured it did not finish in Anfield failure. Only Leeds have won here in the Premier League this season; indeed only they have claimed three points in front of a crowd in six years. It has been a fortress for most of Firmino’s time; disappointing as drawing with Villa was, home form is not the principal reason why Liverpool will be condemned to the Europa League.
Villa may yet join them in Thursday night action. They were agonisingly close to a 15th win in 24 league games under Unai Emery, and perhaps a best, too. “If it wasn’t for [Steven] Gerrard we’d be top,” their fans chorused, barracking their previous manager and Liverpool’s former captain, and, if not quite true, theirs has been a stunning turnaround; they are ahead of Tottenham now, in the top seven, their fate in their own hands.
Yet it probably should have been victory. Ollie Watkins, Liverpool’s nemesis when he scored a hat-trick against them in Villa’s 7-2 win in 2020, offered them respite. He rolled a penalty wide as his goal drought extended to six games. He had earned it himself when fouled by Ibrahima Konate and after racing on to John McGinn’s pass. Villa nevertheless led. Jacob Ramsey met Douglas Luiz’s cross with a low half-volley as Liverpool, who had kept three clean sheets in a row, struggled defensively.
They lacked cohesion and chemistry going forward, too. With Gakpo having a goal disallowed when Virgil van Dijk was adjudged offside. They mustered only two shots on target in the first 88 minutes. Klopp may have rued his own indiscipline, confined to the stands by a touchline ban, struggling to alter events. But his assistant Pep Lijnders sent on Firmino and Milner. And, as he has done so many times over the last eight years, Firmino sent Anfield into raptures.