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Liverpool Daily report

IRONIC that it should be goals which nudged Liverpool ahead of Chelsea into the Promised Land of a Champions League spot last night.

For only a lack of them in recent weeks has prevented Gerard Houllier's side from exerting a vice-like grip on third place and making his players favourites to clinch a reward deemed totally unrealistic but a few short months ago.

As it is, the Frenchman was left to rue more missed chances as Aston Villa succeeded in following Sunderland's footsteps at the weekend by leaving Anfield with a point which simply should not have been available to them.

Liverpool's recent carelessness in front of goal - typified in this instance by Michael Owen's 31st-minute penalty miss - has now seen a haul equivalent to two wins slip through their fingers.

Perhaps more worrying for Houllier will have been his team's inability to break down a watertight Villa rearguard long before the game eventually fell tamely to its knees and refused to get back up.

There was the usual perspiration, which has become a prerequisite as the new Liverpool unfolds bit by bit, but the inspiration embellishing that foundation in recent weeks was lost after an hour and never found again.

Yet it should not have been an evening of 'if onlys' and for supporters to reflect on what might have been.

Houllier offered a first glimpse of what many will regard - although Robbie Fowler would undoubtedly disagree - as his striking 'dream-team' with Owen deemed fit enough to partner Emile Heskey in attack.

And both forwards should have found their way onto the scoresheet in a first-half which promised much, but ultimately delivered little.

As his manager eloquently explained in the pre-match build-up, it will take time to curb Heskey's natural urges to forage down the flanks and ask him to inhabit the penalty area more frequently in a bid to improve a scoring ratio which hangs around his neck like a millstone at present.

There were occasions when he visibly tried to do just that, while as early as the fourth minute he could have claimed his first goal for his new club.

Set free by Steven Gerrard's pass, Heskey's first touch sent him a shade wider than he would have liked and as a result his finish was as much a cross as a shot which fizzed through the Villa six-yard box at breakneck speed which prevented anyone from looking capable of applying the necessary finishing touch.

Gerrard was involved again minutes later when he seized on a deft flick by the impressive David Thompson and this time ushered Owen to scamper beyond his markers.

There was a hint of his famed jet-heeled pace as he left Gareth Southgate behind, but the end product remained elusive as he rolled his shot against the exposed Peter Enckleman's legs.

The well-worn theory which invariably treats games in hand as 'win bankers' always appeared in danger of falling down against a buoyant Villa team, who themselves have only lost once in 18 matches.

But apart from an early scare when Stephane Henchoz was on hand to clear Julian Joachim's shot off the line after Dominic Matteo had allowed Benito Carbone's cross to squirm under his foot, John Gregory's side stuck perfectly to the script.

There was always a hint of danger on the counter-attack lurking beneath the surface, but it remained just that with Sander Westerveld largely untroubled throughout.

Indeed, Liverpool's struggle to break the deadlock was entirely of their own making rather than any heroic defending a rearguard expertly marshalled by Ugo Ehiogu were called on to do.

No more so than just after half-an-hour when Gareth Southgate upended Patrik Berger just inside the area and Owen stepped forward to replace the Czech who had scored so emphatically from the spot just five days earlier.

To be fair, Owen's drive was delivered with the same ferocity and struck the underside of the crossbar before crashing downwards in a blur.

Owen, arm raised, prepared to wheel away convinced he had claimed his first goal since December, only for his celebrations to instantly be cut-short as referee Steve Bennett and his assistant ruled the shot had not crossed the line.

And that was really as good as it got.

In an attempt to make amends for his blemishes, Owen took an astute pass from Heskey but scooped his shot over the crossbar from 10 yards shortly after the break.

Thompson, back after the kind of suspension Diego Maradona usually serves for drug offences, then tormented Alan Wright and stung the Finnish keeper Enckleman's fingertips with another effort.

However, having retreated into what amounted to a defensive shell, Villa seldom looked likely to give an inch and Thompson needed to be alert to head a Carbone cross away from the Italian's incoming team-mates at the far post.

Given little leeway or margin of error by an overly anxious crowd, Liverpool's efforts of claiming a goal became increasingly fitful and eventually non-existent.

The frustration was enough to bring the curtain down early once more on Owen's evening as he trudged off and was replaced by Titi Camara on 67 minutes as Houllier ripped up Plan A and reached for an alternative blueprint in which there is no debate about having a third striker at your disposal.

The saviour so many times previously, the African could make little impact with Villa content to smother all before them - and by whatever means necessary. Heskey was usually the target, but one tumble to the turf too many saw Gregory, watching from the Directors' Box, jump to his feet and bellow 'cheat' at the forward.

Jamie Redknapp - his return the only bright spot other than the league table - and Erik Meijer followed the Guinean into the action but a succession of late corners and the fourth official's scoreboard showing three minutes from somewhere only served to present false hope.

That the final whistle was not greeted by boos, but a subdued silence, told its own story.

No one was doubting the effort - just the end product.

Two defeats in 19 games remains an enviable record, but there would be no better place to rediscover the killer instinct that than at Pride Park on Saturday.

Liverpool (4-4-2): Westerveld, Carragher, Hyypia, Henchoz, Matteo; Thompson (Meijer 83), Gerrard (Redknapp 78), Hamann, Berger; Owen (Camara 67), Heskey. Subs: Friedel, Staunton.

Aston Villa (3-5-2): Enckelman, Southgate (Taylor 53), Ehiogu, Barry; Delaney, Boateng, Merson (Hendrie 61), Stone, Wright; Carbone, Joachim (Walker 89). Subs: Watson, Cutler.

Referee: Steve Bennett (Kent)

Bookings: Barry (foul 58)

© Liverpool Daily Post & Echo

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