No end to Houllier's 'storm'

Liverpool's winter of discontent shows no sign of abating. A disjointed, dysfunctional and occasionally desperate performance against the team with the worst away record in the Premiership failed to produce the win Gerard Houllier's men crave so badly.

Without a win in 11 League games, Liverpool's season is spluttering to an ignominious halt, and they appear powerless to reverse the slump. Never mind the title - even a Champions League place is beginning to look a tall order.

Under normal circumstances, a home game in early January against Aston Villa would hardly have been considered a watershed in Liverpool's season, though these are abnormal times at Anfield.

Houllier described it as "a massive match" that went far beyond securing three points. It was a chance, he said, to end the club's worst League run in 50 years and to begin to repair the psychological damage. Unfortunately, the problems facing the Frenchman appear as difficult as ever.

With Michael Owen returning to the starting line-up after a two-match absence with a hamstring injury, Houllier chose to keep faith with 20-year-old Neil Mellor, who scored his first senior goal in the midweek Worthington Cup semi-final first-leg defeat at Sheffield United and who has impressed the Frenchman with his work-rate and physical presence. John Arne Riise also returned, with Djimi Traore and Vladimir Smicer relegated to the bench.

But Villa were also carrying their own emotional baggage. The club were deeply wounded by the manner and scale of last week's FA Cup defeat by Blackburn, and then there was the small matter of their Worthington Cup quarter-final defeat at the hands of Liverpool, courtesy of Danny Murphy's injury-time winner at Villa Park in December.

Graham Taylor made five changes from the side who capitulated so tamely to Blackburn, with Peter Enckelman returning in goal and Ian Taylor, Darius Vassell, Thomas Hitzlsperger and Ronny Johnsen all returning to the side.

Villa may be the only side in the Premiership without a win on their travels, though it is clearly not for want of trying. Taylor's men showed much the better attacking enterprise in the opening half-hour and could have been two up within five minutes had not Dion Dublin wasted two excellent close-range changes, the first a wild volley over the bar and the second a mistimed hooked shot which was cleared off the line by Stephane Henchoz.

Liverpool, meanwhile, were a team without rhythm and purpose and the frustration was audible as the fans grew progressively more restless at the bluntness of the home's sides attacks.

Ironically, it was just as the barracking was beginning to reach a crescendo that a glimmer of hope emerged when Murphy threaded a ball through the Villa defence to Owen, whose shot from an acute angle crashed into the side netting.

The effort was to prove a turning point as Riise and Mellor both went close in quick succession, the former forcing Enckelman into a brilliant fingertip save to turn the ball on to his post, before the moment Anfield's long-suffering fans had been praying for finally arrived.

On 38 minutes, El Hadji Diouf wriggled his way down the right by-line and his cross cannoned off the arm of Johnsen into the path of Owen, who drilled the ball home powerfully from the centre of a crowded penalty area just as the assistant referee was raising his flag to signal a penalty. It was Owen's first Premiership goal since Liverpool's 2-0 defeat of West Ham on Nov 2.

The relief around Anfield was palpable - but short-lived. Villa replaced Vassell with Stefan Moore after the break and the striker's impact was almost immediate. After robbing Jamie Carragher on the left, his pinpoint cross found Ian Taylor whose powerful header was saved spectacularly by Chris Kirkland.

Minutes later, Anfield was silenced. As Villa pressed forward, Gareth Barry knocked the ball past Sami Hyypia and was promptly felled by a challenge that was wild, late and right under referee Paul Durkin's nose. Dublin stroked the ball home casually.

It was Dublin's fourth Premiership goal in successive games and he could so easily have had a fifth just a minute later when his free header flashed over the bar.

Liverpool were knocked out of their tempo and struggled to recover. Restricted to isolated chances - the two best ones falling to Gerrard - but they struggled to find their stride.

The inhibiting lack of confidence infecting their game was summed up 12 minutes from time when Smicer, a second-half substitute for Diouf, was put through by Owen for a clear run at goal and, with only the goalkeeper to beat, he inexplicably chose to square the ball instead of shooting himself.

The psychological burden of 11 games of under-achievement continues to weigh heavily.

Match details

Liverpool: Kirkland, Carragher, Henchoz, Hyypia, Riise, Gerrard, Diao (Cheyrou 72), Murphy, Diouf (Smicer 60), Owen, Mellor (Heskey 60).
Subs Not Used: Dudek, Traore.
Booked: Henchoz.
Goals: Owen 38.

Aston Villa: Enckelman, Johnsen, Mellberg, Barry, Samuel, Hendrie (De la Cruz 52), Taylor, Hitzlsperger, Wright, Dublin, Vassell (Moore 45). Subs Not Used: Postma, Crouch, Edwards.
Booked: Taylor, Wright.
Goals: Dublin 49 pen.

Att: 43,210
Ref: P Durkin (Dorset).

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