Steven Gerrard was warmly applauded by Liverpool fans when he entered the stadium
Steven Gerrard strolled down the tunnel with barely a backwards glance or a moment's acknowledgement for the Liverpool fans so keen to serenade their legendary former captain.
Gerrard could not have made it clearer that he was very much Aston Villa's manager and supremely uninterested in a sentimental journey back to old territory from the moment he walked out at Anfield until the conclusion of Liverpool's hard-earned 1-0 win.
As fans queued to get into the Kop before kick-off, they were treated to some golden Gerrard moments on the big screens as memories were revived of a Liverpool career stretching over 710 appearances and 186 goals.
There was even the odd flag paying homage to the returning hero, but Gerrard has spent the week shutting out the noise and romance of his eagerly awaited return to Liverpool – and this was strictly business.
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Anfield paid a pre-match tribute to Ray Kennedy, their legendary midfielder from the glory days of the 1970s and early '80s, who passed away recently, while they were also keen to show appreciation for another one of their own who will be forever in Liverpool's Hall of Fame.
Gerrard was afforded a rousing reception as he emerged before kick-off, but his first move was to turn left in the direction of Villa's fans in the Anfield Road end to applaud them before giving a polite wave towards the Kop.
And when the old Anfield songbook was dusted off in his honour early on, Gerrard did not move a muscle, standing drenched in a dark overcoat focusing fiercely on the action in front of him.
Gerrard was bitterly disappointed on several counts by the final whistle – not only the defeat, but by his belief that Mohamed Salah fouled Tyrone Mings before Villa's captain committed a decisive foul in the area. Also, his firm conviction Villa should have had a penalty of their own when Danny Ings threatened to cash in on a mix-up between Liverpool keeper Alisson and Joel Matip in the closing minutes.
Even when Liverpool's fans felt comfortable enough with affairs late on to give it another go in celebration of the icon who won the Champions League, FA Cup, Uefa Cup and League Cup, Gerrard was not playing the game.
He was there as Aston Villa manager, representing Aston Villa's fans. The rest was a sideshow. He was treating it as such.
Gerrard said: "I understand that there was going to be some noise around the game. People appreciate the bond I still have with the Liverpool fans but that's normal because I had so many years here."
The touchline body language alone was worth watching, Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp spending large portions of the first half furiously berating fourth official Graham Scott, while Gerrard largely kept his distance. He was, however, keeping a very close eye on his opposite number during what seemed like an endless exchange with the under-siege Scott, even offering an explanation on one occasion when the home bench appeared particularly irate following a decision against Liverpool.
It was a very measured afternoon for Gerrard, who was not going to make the mistake of playing to the gallery who loved him, a gallery who increasingly see him as Klopp's natural heir.
He was fixing his full attention on Villa, declining to respond to Liverpool's fans during or after the game. He was not going to give anyone, particularly the noisy visiting support, an opportunity to even hint at the slightest sign of split loyalty.
This is because there was no split loyalty, and for long periods Villa were stern and organised enough to suggest they might just escape with a point. They would not have deserved it, but what will please Gerrard is that there is renewed steel about Villa since his arrival, with three wins in five games.
Gerrard was right to point out Liverpool's supremacy box-to-box, but Villa are not alone there and this is very much an early work in progress.
The fact they took Liverpool so long into the game before they made the breakthrough, and at least had them and their supporters living on their nerves in those anxious final moments, will give Gerrard encouragement.
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Gerrard's gameplan was clear – take the game beyond the hour with Villa still in the hunt, then see if they could take something.
Villa defended with all their resources and were even prepared to resort to some of the dark arts of game management – much to Anfield's annoyance – by taking every second over every restart to keep Liverpool's momentum in check.
In the end, Gerrard left Anfield empty-handed and his wish to lose a little of his popularity – temporarily at least – in return for a winning journey back down the M6 did not come to pass.
He has credit in the bank, signs of an improving Aston Villa and suggestions he has the raw materials to work with and the power to add in the transfer market. And the Anfield body language alone confirmed Villa have a manager who will be ruthlessly driven to bring success.
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