Jurgen Klopp said Liverpool’s ability to grind out wins when not at their best has been a hallmark of the champions this season after Sadio Mane and Curtis Jones struck in the final 20 minutes to beat struggling Aston Villa 2-0 on Sunday.
After a 4-0 humbling at the hands of Manchester City in their first match as Premier League champions on Thursday, Klopp’s men again failed to hit the heights that made them runaway leaders before a three-month hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic.
But Mane’s sweet strike off the underside of the bar and Jones’s deflected effort kept up a run of 24 consecutive league wins at Anfield for the Reds and left Villa still languishing in the bottom three.
“We are where we are because we win difficult games,” said Klopp.
“Today Aston Villa was fighting with all they had and it makes life uncomfortable. It was not a brilliant performance but it was a good performance that gets us three points.”
Klopp has insisted he will not dish out appearances “like Christmas presents” in the final month of the campaign as his side eye a record points tally in English top-flight history.
Liverpool moved onto 89 points with a further 15 still up for grabs to beat City’s record of 100 from two seasons ago.
In front of an empty Anfield, the hosts struggled to summon their best with the big prize already won and just re-writing the record books to play for.
Villa, by contrast, are still desperate for points in their battle to beat the drop and Dean Smith’s men were left to rue not taking their chances on the counter-attack early in the second half as their winless streak stretched to 10 games.
“I don’t want to be a valiant loser because we are running out of games,” said Smith.
“To out-shoot Liverpool at home at Anfield, in terms of efforts on goal is excellent, but need to take our opportunities. We never found the quality in the final third they did.”
Pepe Reina was recalled in the Villa goal on his return to Anfield where he spent nine years as a Liverpool player, but the Spaniard barely had a save of note to make before half-time as Liverpool struggled to break Villa down.
Indeed, it was Alisson Becker who was the busier goalkeeper as the Brazilian was forced to parry shots from Douglas Luiz, Jack Grealish and Anwar El Ghazi.
Klopp was forced into introducing Jordan Henderson, Georginio Wijnaldum and Roberto Firmino to try and summon a response from his side in the final half hour.
The triple substitution quickly made a difference when Naby Keita picked out Mane to sweep home his 20th goal of the season.
“I didn’t thank him for bringing the three subs on,” added Smith. “That strengthened them.”
Reina was finally forced into a fine save as he dived to his left to deny Firmino his first goal at Anfield this season.
Another substitute made the game safe a minute from time as 19-year-old Jones saw his effort deflect past the helpless Reina before Alisson produced another stunning save at the other end to deny Grealish a consolation.