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Villa frustrated by fluke

Liverpool won this battle of improving teams with the jammiest of goals, but just about deserved the three points. The win keeps the Merseysiders within reach of the fourth place in the Premiership they covet and ends the five-match unbeaten run that had taken Villa out of the bottom three and as high as sixth. Even so, the Birmingham club can take heart from another spirited performance.

Who scored Liverpool's winning goal was still a mystery at the final whistle. Opinion was split between Danny Murphy and Villa defender Mark Delaney. Even those who had studied the television replays closely said they could not be sure. All one could say for sure was that El Hadji Diouf had an outstanding game.

The Senegal international ran poor Jlloyd Samuel, Villa's young left back, ragged and was deservedly man of the match. The only glitch in Diouf's afternoon was the booking, his 10th of the season, that will bring a two-game ban. But, having had his red card against Chelsea rightly scrubbed, Diouf will probably see his latest suspension swallowed up by the African Nations Cup.

Liverpool, fresh from that heartening win at Chelsea, were the quicker starters. They might well have scored inside the first minute and could have gone two up inside the first 12. Hardly had the game kicked off than Didi Hamann was firing Murphy's square ball just wide of Thomas Sorensen's right-hand post.

Then there was a quite incredible miss by Michael Owen on his return to the side. No more than three yards from an open goal, the England striker scooped a shot against the crossbar.

Although Juan Pablo Angel headed Olof Mellberg's centre over the bar in the eighth minute, Villa did not really come into it as an attacking force until midway through the first half, when Liverpool debutant Paul Jones did his confidence no end of good with a fine save, turning Darius Vassell's fierce shot round his near post.

It was not altogether surprising, then, when Liverpool took the lead after 35 minutes.

Murphy was credited with the goal by the stadium announcer, the midfielder's touch apparently causing the sharp deflection that wrong-footed Sorensen. But there was also a strong suspicion that Emile Heskey's header might well have gone in off Delaney, who was standing alongside Murphy when the ball flashed across the Villa penalty area.

Something not in doubt, however, was the quality of Harry Kewell's centre from the right or the glancing header with which Heskey sent it on towards Murphy.

Villa, who had had to replace the injured Gavin McCann with Thomas Hitzlsperger five minutes before the interval, made another change at the start of the second half, Stefan Moore taking Vassell's place in attack. And when that did not make any difference, manager David O'Leary took off Lee Hendrie and sent on Ronny Johnsen and switched Dion Dublin from centre back to centre forward.

Liverpool, who had created only a couple of half-chances by then, tried to pep up their attack by taking off Owen, who had looked short of match fitness after nearly two months on the sidelines, and replacing him with the lively young Frenchman, Florent Sinama-Pongolle. It should have produced a goal in the 76th minute, too, but Sinama-Pongolle and Kewell wasted a wonderful two-on-one break with a poor pass by the former and wayward shot by the latter.

Match details

Liverpool: Jones, Henchoz, Hyypia, Biscan, Riise, Diouf (Cheyrou 82), Murphy, Hamann, Kewell, Owen (Sinama Pongolle 73), Heskey.
Subs Not Used: Luzi Bernardi, Le Tallec, Traore.
Booked: Diouf, Kewell, Hamann.
Goals: Delaney 36 og.

Aston Villa: Sorensen, Delaney, Dublin, Mellberg, Samuel, Hendrie (Johnsen 68), McCann (Hitzlsperger 40), Whittingham, Barry, Vassell (Moore 45), Angel.
Subs Not Used: Postma, De la Cruz.
Booked: McCann, Hitzlsperger.

Att: 43,771
Ref: G Barber (Hertfordshire).

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