Robbie Fowler smacked down Liverpool's title gauntlet with perfect timing on the eve of tomorrow's so-called showdown between Newcastle and Manchester United. A two-horse championship race? No way, after Anfield's red-hot young gun led the whirlwind destruction of in-form Villa.
Three goals in the first eight breathless minutes destroyed any notion Kevin Keegan or Alex Ferguson may have that winner takes all at St James' Park tomorrow. Roy Evans' irrepressible Merseysiders - drawing on the ingrained experience of 11 titles in the last 23 years - stretched their unbeaten run to 16 games to move within two points of their rivals at the other end of the East Lancs Road.
And they are only four more behind Newcastle, who know that if they lose tomorrow they could be swamped by a Red tidal wave out of the west, especially since they still have to come to Anfield on April Fool's night.
Liverpool will pray Fowler can keep his form till then, while England surely need him to keep going deep into summer. It is now becoming inconceivable that Terry Venables will not elevate the 20-year-old into his European Championship squad. His early double took his recent haul to 16 from 15 games, to 29 for the season and to 78 in 125 games since he broke into the Liverpool first team.
He could take Stan Collymore with him. The pair have now scored 28 goals between them in that unbeaten run and, though the £8.5 million striker drew a blank, he created the first goal after just 79 seconds. From wide right, he delivered Jason McAteer's pass to the heart of a Villa defence that had conceded just six goals in its previous seven outings. John Barnes' high side-foot laid the ball onto the right foot of the unmarked Steve McManaman at his back and a low skidding volley was in the far corner before Mark Bosnich could blink.
Billed as the undercard to tomorrow's heavyweight contest, Fowler immediately rendered the game a title eliminator as he consigned fourth-placed Villa to the also-rans with two more goals in the next six minutes. Brian Little's Wembley-bound side arrived as one of the form teams of the moment: in the FA Cup last eight as well as the Coca-Cola Cup final and just one defeat in their last eight Premiership games.
But that came against the Merseysiders at Villa Park in January. And, with Mark Draper joining Tommy Johnson and Ian Taylor on the injury list, it was always going to be daunting. It became impossible and humiliating when Fowler tricked former Anfield defender Steve Staunton with a Cruyff-like flick and turn to go clear and crash a 30-yarder at 78 miles an hour beyond the Australian goalkeeper's despairing fingertips into the top right hand corner. The youngster, who will surely feature against Bulgaria at the end of the month, then showed his pace to get clear of another Venables' contender, Gareth Southgate, on to converted left-back Rob Jones' long pass down his touchline. Nevertheless, the angle was still tight as he cut in and the looks that the Villa defenders gave Bosnich after another left foot shot flashed up and over him at the near post left no doubt where they apportioned the blame for the third goal.
Fowler nearly completed a 14-minute hat-trick when he slid in at the far post onto Collymore's cross and then Bosnich made a superb save to grasp his header from McAteer's cross when it flew off Ugo Ehiogu's shoulder.
Villa tried to dam the tide by sending on new £1.5 million signing Julian Joachim for Staunton after 23 minutes and showed a lot of pride in hauling themselves back into the game. Liverpool, who switched to a flat back four when Jamie Redknapp came on for the groin-troubled Mark Wright in 31st minute, were a cut above, however, and Barnes three times went within a whisker of the fourth.
Fowler will feel he should have done better with a 66th minute chance supplied by Collymore, allowing Bosnich to make a good diving save. But struggling Serb Savo Milosevic should have sent Villa home with solid consolation when a Phil Babb slip left him with only David James to beat from 16 yards. But he had not scored for 12 games and showed why it became 13 with a woeful sidefoot that the Liverpool goalkeeper gratefully scrambled aside.
They were desperately unlucky in the 79th minute when Southgate's header from Gareth Farrelly's corner smacked against the underside of the crossbar and was cleared off the line by Barnes.
Two-goal hero Robbie Fowler shifted the Premiership title focus away from St James' Park for at least a few hours this afternoon and insisted: "Today's game was just as important as tomorrow night's." The England Under-21 striker took his goal tally to 29 in the 3-0 Anfield demolition of Aston Villa and cranked up the pressure on Newcastle and Manchester United, who clash on Tyneside tomorrow.
Third placed Liverpool are now just two points behind United and six adrift of Kevin Keegan's leaders, and 20-year-old Fowler said of his side's title chances: "We have just got to keep playing well. Newcastle and Man United know that we are not out of it yet. Today's game was just as important as the game tomorrow night because we needed the three points if we are going to keep challenging between now and the end of the season. We have still got a chance and we've just got to keep playing well and keep winning games and hope the two above us slip up towards the end of the season."
Fourth-placed Villa were dead and buried within eight minutes after Fowler's brace and Steve McManaman's second-minute opener. Fowler added: "We had been saying all week that we knew Aston Villa were going to come out and try to take the game to us but I don't think they had a touch."
Reds manager Roy Evans did his best to play down expectations of overtaking the top two, saying: "We can only look after ourselves. We can only win our own games and hope that there's a slip-up. If we can do as we did today we can certainly please our punters and ourselves as well."
Evans said of Keegan and Alex Ferguson's sides: "The pressure is still on them. We have done our bit today; they have go to do theirs tomorrow. I've not many grey hairs to add today because we won. Tomorrow's a different ball game!"
The Anfield boss declined to make a prediction about the clash at St James' Park. "It's a very difficult one to call ... both of them to get beaten would suit us!" he quipped.
Copyright - "Press Association".