Downing's winner was his eighth goal of the season
Liverpool failed to end their revival with a spot in the Europa League as they finished sixth in the Premier League after defeat at Aston Villa.
England winger Stewart Downing grabbed the only goal when he fired in after a cross from Marc Albrighton.
Reds midfielder Raul Meireles almost equalised but keeper Brad Friedel impressively clawed away his shot.
In a game which failed to sparkle, Villa finished the stronger and James Collins almost added a second.
The victory moved the Midlands club up to a respectable ninth-place finish and despite under-achieving for much of the season, they ended it with just one defeat in their last eight games to provide some encouragement for the future.
Dalglish disappointed to miss out on Europe
The same can also be said for Liverpool, even though they have lost their final two games of the campaign, and they are expected to embark on a summer of major strengthening via the transfer market.
Ahead of the game, the Merseysiders knew a Europa League place would be theirs if they could better Tottenham's result against Birmingham at White Hart Lane and claim fifth place.
As events transpired, they failed to qualify for Europe for the first time since 1999 but there might not be too much angst felt at Anfield about not playing in a competition with a reputation among some clubs for being more of a hindrance than an honour.
Joe Cole was given his first start for Liverpool since 17 March as Reds boss Kenny Dalglish chose to leave out Andy Carroll, Maxi and Glen Johnson.
Carroll's absence was the most notable with the striker emerging as a doubt to play for England at the European Under-21 Championship in Denmark this summer because of injury concerns.
Liverpool skipper Steven Gerrard, who has been injured since the start of March, opted to watch the final game of the season from among the Reds fans at Villa Park - but there was little for him to get excited about with more injuries than goal attempts in the first half.
Liverpool midfielder Jay Spearing was first to depart as he felt the effects of a Nigel Reo-Coker challenge after 12 minutes, with Jonjo Shelvey coming on as his replacement.
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Centre-back Jamie Carragher had to go off briefly to have running repairs to a head wound before Villa lost midfielder Fabian Delph, who was replaced by Albrighton.
Liverpool went close when Lucas Leiva's effort was cleared off the line by Ashley Young, but Villa responded by opening the scoring themselves as Albrighton provided a cross to the far post where Downing controlled on his chest before firing an angled shot high into the Reds net.
Villa had conceded 59 goals in previous games this season and that record provided a Liverpool side, who improved after the break, with hope of getting back into the game.
The visitors thought they were set to do so when the tricky Luis Suarez outwitted Villa right-back Kyle Walker and squared the ball for Meireles.
The Portuguese international midfielder had the Villa net at his mercy but 40-year-old Friedel, making his 400th Premier League appearance, scampered across to claw away the shot.
Thereafter, the home defence stood firm and it was Villa who looked the more likely to score.
Young's free-kick was guided narrowly wide by Collins before Gabriel Agbonlahor agonisingly failed to get an outstretched leg to a Darren Bent cross.
Ashley Young has been linked to a move away from Villa and when he went off to a ovation as he clapped the fans on his way off after 89 minutes will do little to deter speculation about his future.
And, despite a frustrating season, Villa's fans were celebrating after the final whistle, giving off a huge roar when the relegation of local rivals Birmingham, who lost at Spurs, was confirmed.
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