AFTER a scoreless start at Tottenham, Aston Villa have created an infant season of promise. They followed up a draw with Manchester United by winning here, grittily, owing as much to obdurate resistance as the goals of Dion Dublin, Lee Hendrie and Darius Vassell.
Michael Owen appeared for just half an hour and was generally kept under control, but another England hero, Steven Gerrard, could be far less proud of his contribution, even if it did include an equaliser that misleadingly suggested Liverpool might avoid a second successive defeat. He was sent off with 17 minutes left (in fact 24, after Andy D'Urso had allowed for time spent treating Gerrard's victim and other interruptions) and it was a straight red, deserved for an ugly tackle on the excellent George Boateng.
A poor day all round for Anfield also featured a substantial section of the Liverpool support, once regarded as England's most knowledgeable, booing Boateng - presumably for rising with his afflicted leg in one piece - and Gerard Houllier's unworthy remark that the Dutchman was "a good actor". The Liverpool manager did, however, compliment visitors apparently invigorated by their exploits in qualifying through the InterToto Cup for Europe proper.
"You'd have needed a good Liverpool side to beat them," said Houllier, adding: "We were not that." An international hangover had been largely responsible. "Everybody was out of sorts - even the substitutes didn't look sharp. It was a day off. Now let's go on to another game."
His team's last game had prompted a change of goalkeeper. Pity the poor Dutch: eliminated from the World Cup and being bounced out of England's leading clubs with uncommon ruthlessness. After Jaap Stam, the next to go will be Sander Westerveld, who can have no complaints in the light of the gift he bestowed on Bolton; it was not a first offence and the top is tough these days.
Liverpool's fans surely understand. Which makes it all the harder to credit their slavish devotion to Robbie Fowler. Enormous though his talent may be, and appealing his personality, the club captain has not looked fit enough this season - despite freedom from injury - and was poor at Bolton before coming on for England at Newcastle. There he performed like a sleepwalker, except in executing what was, admittedly, a very handsome finish.
Here he wasted a chance to play for 90 minutes after Houllier had given a rest on the bench to Owen, whose four goals for England last week had made it 11 in seven matches overall this season. Houllier, asked if he regretted his choice, declared that Owen had played eight matches in 30 days and now faced the prospect of seven in 22: "We've got to be careful."
Gerrard, having combined the duties of holding midfielder and quarterback for his country, reverted to the right so Gary McAllister could continue to exert a learned influence in the middle. Though at first it worked, Liverpool hardly tested Peter Schmeichel. At the other end the debutant Jerzy Dudek enjoyed deceptive tranquility - until he encountered a header from Dublin that was in no mood to countenance obstruction by the Pole or anyone else. It punished a foul on the impressive Mark Delaney for which Nicky Barmby was rightly cautioned. Paul Merson curled over the free-kick and Dublin rose to put Villa ahead, exacerbating Houllier's concern over a habit of giving goals away at aerial set-pieces.
Liverpool henceforth became increasingly ragged, McAllister suffering from the attentions of his former Coventry colleague Boateng. He did manage, with a swiftly improvised nod, to put Fowler into a threatening position, but the alert Olof Mellberg, a powerful partner for the outstanding Alpay, instantly stepped in to establish dominance.
A minute after the interval, Houllier having opted to persevere with Fowler and Emile Heskey to Owen's further exclusion, Liverpool drew level. McAllister flighted a corner and Gerrard, who had resumed like a man possessed, steered a downward header away from Schmeichel; although Dublin appeared to clear, one of the referee's assistants confirmed that the ball had crossed the line.
Villa were soon in front again, due to Hendrie's opportunism after Dublin had rather spoiled the effect of a clever chest-down by kicking air, and within minutes Houllier turned to Owen, sending him up with Fowler while Heskey took Barmby's place on the left. To no avail. Vassell, with a deflected shot, had the last word.
Copyright - The Telegraph