Sadio Mane’s superb second half header, from Luis Diaz’s equally impressive cross, ultimately earned Jurgen Klopp’s Reds a win which took them back level on points with leaders Manchester City.
But this was a night when their mettle was seriously tested by a determined VIlla team who made a mockery of the suggestion Gerrard, their manager, might be ready to do his old club a favour.
The theory was blown out of the window within three minutes when Douglas Luiz fired the home side ahead. Joel Matip levelled just as quickly and both sides went close more than once to taking the lead before Mane delivered the telling blow midway through the second half.
It still required a sharp save from Liverpool goalkeeper Alisson to deny Danny Ings a leveller and though this will go down on paper as another Villa failure against a Premier League big gun, it was a night which provided glimpses of the exciting team they might be should they get their summer recruitment right.
Part of that is likely to include the permanent signing of Philippe Coutinho, though Gerrard’s decision to recall the Brazil international against his former club felt like the wrong move both before and after the game. Emi Buendia, consigned to the bench, was a menace after replacing Coutinho in the closing stages.
Gerrard’s decision to drop Buendia felt particularly tough on the Argentina, who had produced arguably his finest display of the season in Saturday’s 3-1 win at Burnley.
Liverpool’s team, meanwhile, featured five changes from the one which started the 1-1 draw with Tottenham, including a first Premier League start since April 2 for Curtis Jones.
While the attention might have been on Coutinho it was Villa’s other Brazilian who made the quickest impact, Luiz putting them ahead inside three minutes.
The home side had already gone close seconds earlier, Alisson pushing away a powerful Watkins drive. When Lucas Digne returned the ball into the box, Luiz rose highest to head toward goal and though the keeper saved he reacted quickest to tap in the rebound.
It was a goal made more chaotic by a collision between Ollie Watkins and Konstantinos Tsimikas which left both lying on the ground.
Yet that was nothing compared to the messy scene which developed in Villa’s box less than three minutes later as the visitors quickly restored parity.
The clearance from Alexander-Arnold's free-kick should have been routine but Tyrone Mings trod on the ball and after Diogo Jota had beaten Ezri Konsa to a challenge and Emi Martinez could only get a hand to Van Dijk’s cross, Matip turned home from close range.
Liverpool were within inches of going ahead when Sadio Mane headed Tsimikas’ inviting cross wide of the post.
But Villa did not look disheartened at gifting away the early advantage and were almost given it back when Alisson struck a clearance straight at Watkins, the ball smacking into the striker and rebounding to the keeper who was able hurriedly clear away to his right.
Ings then should have restored the lead but sent his header from McGinn’s cross over the bar with Alisson marooned in no-man's land.
Coutinho had been quiet but nearly lit up the night when he flicked the ball over the head of his marker, exchanged passes with Digne and curled an effort a yard or so over the bar. Next it was Liverpool’s turn to have their head in their hands as Trent Alexander-Arnold fired in a low cross and Keita, eight yards out, somehow missed his kick.
Alexander-Arnold came within inches of putting the visitors ahead early in the second half with a free-kick which flashed just wide of the post.
Coutinho then had the Holte End on their feet when a deft touch took him past Virgil van Dijk but the centre-half was quick to recover and the moment was gone, just as it was moments later when Watkins through on goal and about to shoot, was robbed of the chance by a brilliantly timed Tsimikas challenge.
Gerrard made his first change just past the hour mark with Marvelous Nakamba, dogged on his first start since December, with Carney Chukwuemeka. But it was Klopp’s next move which proved pivotal, Thiago on the pitch for only two minutes when his block on Luiz’s pass sparked the counter which led to Mane’s goal, the Senegal international sending a delightfully deft header into the bottom corner from Diaz’s cross.
Villa weren’t buried yet but Ings wasted a glorious chance to restore parity when a heavy first touch took the ball too close to Alisson after he had raced on to Watkins’ through ball.
The striker did better when he twisted and turned before hitting a shot which the keeper saved at this near post. Soon after Ings did blast home, only to be correctly denied by an assistant’s flag. That summed up Villa’s night: Nearly, but not quite.
Villa (4-3-1-2): Martinez, Cash, Konsa, Mings, Digne, McGinn, Nakamba (Chukwuemeka 61), Luiz, Coutinho (Buendia 70), Ings, Watkins (Traore 81) Subs not used: Sanson, Chambers, Young, Chrisene, Iroegbunam, Olsen (gk).
Liverpool (4-3-3): Alisson, Alexander-Arnold, Matip, van Dijk, Tsimikas, Keita, Fabinho (Henderson 30), Jones (Thiago 62), Diaz (Salah 72), Mane, Jota Subs not used: Konate, Milner, Firmino, Gomez, Origi, Kelleher (gk).