Steven Gerrard dropped a heavy hint before this disappointing affair that he considers Champions League football to be an imperative clause in the new contract he is promising to sign at Liverpool. On the evidence supplied at Villa Park yesterday, the England midfielder would be better advised to go elsewhere in search of an admission ticket into Europe's premier competition.
Gerrard was making his first competitive appearance of the season for the Merseysiders after being sent off on the final day of last season at Chelsea - he was also dismissed in an Amsterdam pre-season friendly - and he is fortunate not to be facing another suspension after a couple of X-rated challenges left the Aston Villa bench fuming.
His first crude tackle on Jlloyd Samuel led to a heated touchline confrontation between David O'Leary, making his first appearance in the Villa dugout after succeeding Graham Taylor as manager, and Liverpool's volatile No 2, Phil Thompson.
The second two-footed lunge on Villa captain Olof Mellberg looked worse in slow motion but again Gerrard escaped punishment from referee Paul Durkin, whose only use of the yellow card was to punish El Hadji Diouf for a trivial misdemeanour.
O'Leary had cooled down sufficiently by the end of what he saw as an "encouraging" match to insist that he had "no complaints" about anything that occurred on the pitch. "I've no problem with Steven Gerrard - he's a tremendous midfielder who I'd sign tomorrow given half a chance - and I have no problems with Phil Thompson either. It was simply a bit of passion being displayed."
Gerrard's over-zealous approach came from his desire to propel Liverpool back into the big four of the domestic game. He was missed in the opening day home defeat by Chelsea and his presence here made a big difference to a Liverpool central unit that lacks the stabilising influence of the injured Dietmar Hamann.
He was unable to inspire Gerard Houllier's men to their first victory of the new campaign, though, and already they find themselves five points adrift of the three main title contenders they hope to challenge.
"I don't know whether this was half a win or half a defeat," the Anfield manager said, pointing out that his team had encountered opponents who were determined to impress their new manager. "We could have won but we also could have lost."
They would have won but for a defiant display of goalkeeping by Thomas Sorensen, one of two new Villa recruits from the wreckage of Sunderland's relegation.
Sorensen, whose two dust-ups with Mellberg over defensive misunderstandings only slightly tarnished a tremendous home debut, made excellent stops from Diouf, Danny Murphy and John Arne Riise to secure Villa's first point of the season.
The £2.5 million Danish goalkeeper should have been beaten after making the first of those stops, though, the rebound falling to Harry Kewell, Liverpool's new purchase from Leeds, but the Australian forward blazed a drive wide of an unguarded net.
That blunder by Kewell, who puzzlingly was utilised on the right flank more than the left, and a close-range effort from Michael Owen, which Samuel blocked, were Liverpool's two best chances. Villa's nearest miss came when Juan Pablo's curling free-kick rattled the angle of post and crossbar.
Aston Villa: Sorensen, Delaney, Mellberg, Johnsen, Samuel, Hendrie (De la Cruz 87), McCann, Barry, Whittingham, Angel (Dublin 89), Vassell.
Subs Not Used: Alpay, Hitzlsperger, Postma.
Liverpool: Dudek, Carragher, Henchoz, Hyypia, Riise, Diouf, Murphy (Biscan 87), Gerrard, Kewell, Heskey (Baros 58), Owen.
Subs Not Used: Finnan, Smicer, Kirkland.
Ref: P Durkin (Dorset).
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