by Anthony Jones at Talklfc
Liverpool looked to continue their recent return to form and record a third consecutive win, the first time they'd have done so this season. Benitez remained largely faithful with the side of the last two weeks with Cisse partnering Morientes.
The first chance of the game arrived when Morientes played the ball to Gerrard who'd drifted inside. He then linked up with Alonso, Sissoko and Finnan who played some delightful one touch football before Garcia got involved on the edge of the box. His first touch was excellent and opened up space for the shot, his second was just inches from finding the bottom corner of the net as he curled the shot to the keeper's left. There was another moment of clever play between Gerrard, Alonso and then Sissoko who played a through ball for Cisse but the striker was unable to reach the ball. The ball over the top was clearly in the thinking though in the early stages the right distance couldn't be found for Cisse who appeared at times to carry a slight leg strain. Cisse did have a chance to play Gerrard in, but delayed his pass slightly, forcing Gerrard a little wider than he'd hope and allowing Ridgewell to block the cross - an earlier pass might have allowed Gerrard to shoot.
In truth it wasn't a brilliant opening. Liverpool were giving absolutely nothing away at the back but could only find occasional fluency going forward. With the exception of having to punch one cross clear, which he did extremely well, Reina had nothing to do in the first quarter of an hour. Five minutes later though Villa were nearly in. Liverpool were passing the ball comfortably in midfield when Alonso played a pass back towards his centre-halves without looking. Baros showing the workrate he often demonstrated at Anfield snapped up the opportunity to steal possession. Driving into the box he looked certain to get away before Carragher gave an exhibition of the art of recovery, sliding in from behind the striker and poking the ball out of his path.
Within quick succession the McCann and Sissoko picked up bookings for rash challenges whilst Delaney was lucky to avoid one as Garcia had drifted offside before he was pulled down. The game was drifting along, Liverpool looked comfortable but seemed to be playing at too slow a tempo to really open up Villa. A free kick given away on the Liverpool right nearly allowed Villa in as they upped the pace. The ball was swung in and Phillips was only able to divert the ball wide of the goal. Benitez responded by moving Cisse out to the right with Gerrard coming into an advanced position in the centre of midfield.
From that central position Gerrard created the best chance of the half. Receiving the ball on the egde of his box he move forward a couple of yards before curling a pass over the top for Cisse to run onto from his position on the right. With the Villa back four lost on halfway claiming for offside, Cisse had just Sorensen to beat. Not for the first time in his Liverpool career, Cisse demonstrated his lack of confidence in a one on one situation. With Sorensen standing his ground, Cisse delayed before hitting the ball straight at the keeper. There was no attempt to move the ball or to hit the shot early. It summed up a largely frustrating half for the Liverpool attacking pair as neither Cisse nor Morientes could really get into the game. With Villa defending with a very high line it was frustrating that there was little made of Cisse's pace.
Late in the half Gerrard nearly demonstrated the route to goal as Garcia played a clever ball over the top but the skipper was just offside though he put the ball in the back of the net just in case. Whilst within stoppage time Garcia chested the ball down well on the edge of the Villa box to allow Morientes to hit a snap volley that would have tested Sorensen more if it had been further away from the keeper.
The second half opened much as the first did with Liverpool in control of the tempo but without the attacking edge to take full advantage of it. Cisse broke the off-side trap five minutes into the half but couldn't deliver a telling cross. With the second half drifting along much as the first did, Benitez made a change with Zenden replacing Garcia who had taken a knock earlier. Sorensen then nearly gifted Liverpool a goal. A high ball into the box looked like it was drifting out of play and Sorensen was happy to leave it only to see Cisse head the ball back into play towards Morientes. The Spaniard did well to work the shooting position and his low drive forced an excellent save from the keeper who made up for his error.
Liverpool were nearly knocked out of their stride when Villa got in but Reina was alert and off his line quick and helped the back four scamble the ball clear. It was a clear reminder that Liverpool still had a lot to do to win this game. With just under twenty five minutes remaining Morientes who had played largely on the periphery of the game was replaced by Crouch. A great run from Crouch down the right opened up the Villa defence and he delivered the perfect pull back to Gerrard on the edge of the box who's vicious drive was well saved by Sorensen. As the game opened up Villa then broke the Liverpool off-side trap, with Davies onside whilst the players in the middle were off. Davies pulled the back to Baros having just beaten Reina to the ball but the Czech striker couldn't bring the ball under control quick enough and the danger was cleared.
Desperate for a goal, Peter Crouch then saw a great chance go begging. A ball in from Zenden found Crouch unmarked in the centre. It was identical to a chance Morientes had in a recent game, and just as that chance ended with the ball in the keepers arms, so did this one. Crouch with the time to pick his spot failed to put sufficient direction on his header. With fifteen minutes left Cisse was replaced by Kewell. The striker had never looked comfortable in this game, especially when moved right where he looked a threat but failed to deliver any great quality.
With time running out a draw was looking increasingly likely until Peter Crouch got involved. Initially holding off two Villa defenders, a cameo of why Benitez rates him so highly, before playing the ball back to Alonso the striker moved into the box. With the ball played out wide to Zenden, Crouch appeared initially to run into Ridgewell but then with shirts being tugged, Crouch went down. The official had no doubt in his mind and pointed to the spot. Those who believe that these incidents even themselves out over time will suggest that Liverpool were long overdue a decision like this. Gerrard stepped up and made no mistake.
The game was then wrapped up with a couple of minutes remaining. Kewell ghosted down the right and delivered a low cross that was just out of the reach of the sliding Crouch. Zenden picked up the ball on the left side of the box and fired the ball back inside to Crouch who hit a low shot which was goal bound but for an excellent block challenge from Mellberg. The block deserved more than to fall into the path of Alonso on the edge of the box who drilled a low shot which Sorensen failed to hold.
The only frustration in the game is Liverpool took longer to put away a side who they clearly had the beating of. This was a vastly improved away showing though as Liverpool dictated he tempo throughout. Recording their thirteenth clean sheet of the season, it's obvious where Benitez has made improvements, the next stage now has to be to find a more consistent attacking style which should hopefully be assisted in January if signings can be made.