Liverpool’s title winning credentials were all but written off, as Aston Villa boldly walked into Anfield to run the Reds ragged in what was possibly Rodgers’ worst tactical blunder since taking over from Kenny Dalglish. Liverpool lined up with a two man midfield and Villa simply ran Gerrard and Henderson for the entirety of the first half – the Reds were clearly missing the security of a natural defensive midfielder. The result was made doubly painful with Tottenham, Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City all winning during the weekend’s other fixtures.
The game started with Villa pressing the ball well and Paul Lambert’s side were much the better side for the first forty minutes of play. The warning signs were there for all to see with Villa bombarding Liverpool aerially with both long balls and crosses causing all kinds of problems for Rodgers’ side – Benteke seemingly a metre taller than Škrtel, Touré and Gerrard.
The first chance fell to Gabriel Agbonlahor after just one minute, Benteke rose highest to flick on to the Englishman only for Agbonlahor to poke the ball wide of Mignolet’s left hand post – the Belgian rushing out quickly to narrow the angle well. Villa continued to press forward for a deserved opening goal but Westwood’s half volley was struck directly at Mignolet.
Villa weren’t content with simply giving a good account of themselves and were still the better side when the 24th minute came and Ciaran Clark struck the post from a right sided corner; Glen Johnson was the culprit as the right-back lost his man in a busy penalty area.
Eventually Aston Villa got the goal that their play deserved, Agbonlahor raced clear of Kolo Touré after a swift counter attack found the Liverpool rearguard completely non-existent. Agbonlahor faced up to the Ivory Coast international before throwing in a stepover and outdoing the defender for pace – the Englishman then found Weimann unmarked inside the six yard box for one of the easiest finishes of the season. Villa were two to the good after 37 minutes, with Agbonlahor the creator yet again; the pacey striker whipped in a right sided cross, which Mignolet failed to deal with – the ‘keeper stretching for a punch and taking the ball off Glen Johnson’s head before Benteke simply stooped to nod into an empty net. Heated discussions were taking place within Liverpool’s wafer thin back line.
There was more frustration for Liverpool fans as Aly Cissokho wasted the home side’s best chance of the game by slicing high and wide with both Luis Suárez and Daniel Sturridge in better positions in the centre of the area. That frustration was somewhat eased on the stroke of half-time when Liverpool put their first meaningful piece of football together. Coutinho picked the ball up in the final third before poking the ball to Luis Suárez who was just outside the Villa box. Suárez then found a pass into Jordan Henderson’s feet and the English midfielder flicked the ball into Sturridge’s path with the heel of his boot. Sturridge kept his composure to finish with a lofted right foot shot from around seven yards.
Liverpool were level within ten second-half minutes after Villa ‘keeper Brad Guzan made the slightest contact with Luis Suárez and Steven Gerrard slotted home from the penalty slot. The half-time team discussion seemed to herald a change in formation for Rodgers’ side and the change helped, as Liverpool began to dominate the game more – with England captain Steven Gerrard finding much more space to dictate the play. The second Liverpool goal came as a direct result of this change as Gerrard found the space to loft a delicious ball over Vlaar to find Suárez, before he was tripped by the on-rushing Brad Guzan.
The expected Liverpool onslaught never really appeared with Villa then looking to slow the game down whilst also continuing to probe the Liverpool backline.
Liverpool’s best opportunity came from Jordan Henderson as he struck a low shot from the edge of the box before the Villa ‘keeper superbly saved down to his left hand side as the ball came through a crowd of bodies. Rodgers was dealt another body blow when Lucas Leiva was taken off with potential ligament damage but scans will hopefully conclude that those fears are unrealistic.
Suárez also went close with a speculative 35 yard free-kick but both sides had to be content with a point. For Liverpool there were few positives but one could be that this is another point gained on last season’s total as Villa won this fixture 3-1 last season, so perhaps progress has been made, despite the suggestion that this was two points dropped. For Villa, this was a much improved performance when compared with recent weeks, Paul Lambert will take immense pride in his side’s performances against some of the big teams this season and he now needs to work on replicating those performances against mid-table rivals.
Man of the match – Jordan Henderson was Liverpool’s main man but Ron Vlaar superbly marshalled the Villa rearguard and kept Suárez quiet for most of the game.