Liverpool are now unbeaten in 10 games dating back to early December, their surge having started in the most inauspicious manner with a home stalemate against Southampton. While the Collymore-Fowler partnership has amassed 19 goals during that run, both were indebted last night to the kind of errors Mark Bosnich must have hoped were behind him.
It was ironic that Bosnich, formerly of the Bruce Grobbelaar school of maverick goalkeeping but a model of consistency this season, should have fallen below his usual standards on the very day that Nigel Spink finally conceded he was never likely to regain his place.
Spink, who joined West Bromwich Albion on a free transfer yesterday after 19 seasons with Villa, received a send-off befitting his status as the last link with the European Cup-winning team of 1982. His half-time farewell proved the home crowd's most heart-warming moment of the evening, Liverpool shrugging off some early scares to record their first away victory over Villa in 12 years.
A fixture originally scheduled for Boxing Day did not quite come to the boil before Liverpool scored twice in four minutes shortly after the hour, but it certainly simmered nicely. The division's meanest defence, belonging to Bosnich and his colleagues, was pitted against its most prolific scorers, though for much of the first half two teams using essentially similar systems appeared almost too evenly matched.
Villa dominated territorially, but the touch and mobility of Liverpool's attacking players meant they always carried a strong threat on the break. They created the better of the earlier opportunities, Steve McManaman testing Bosnich's agility as early as the ninth minute. David James' chance to excel came only seconds later, a plunge to his left thwarting Mark Draper after Gary Charles and Tommy Johnson had combined cleverly.
Unfortunately for Villa, Johnson and Dwight Yorke were more subdued than of late, putting the onus heavily on Savo Milosevic. Brilliant one moment, banal the next, the Serbian also revealed again the melodramatic bent which so enraged Sheffield United followers on Sunday, once falling as if poleaxed after an innocuous brush with Neil Ruddock.
Collymore, in contrast, cut a ruthless yet at the same time more disciplined figure, and it took a brilliant diving stop by Bosnich to keep out his header from Jason McAteer's centre midway through the first half. Soon after the interval, Yorke volleyed wide when Johnson's cross gave him a sniff of his 50th goal for Villa. Liverpool, building to their most accomplished away display since they won at Tottenham in August, soon made good their escape.
Until Draper brought down McManaman on the angle of the Villa area, Liverpool had made the majority of the unforced errors. John Barnes rolled the free- kick short to Collymore, who, facing the Holte End from where he once worshipped Gary Shaw, unleashed a swerving drive whose trajectory deceived Bosnich into diving the wrong way.
The Australian, who had not been beaten twice in 18 games, may have been unsighted by Andy Townsend's leap out of the defensive wall, and promptly arched to tip over another Collymore shot. There was no such athleticism and no mitigating circumstances, however, as Fowler tried his luck from 22 yards. His shot, though well directed, lacked power, and both parties seemed surprised as it bobbled beyond the keeper into the net.
Aston Villa (3-4-1-2): Bosnich; Ehiogu, McGrath (Staunton, 70), Southgate; Charles, Draper, Townsend, A Wright; Johnson; Yorke, Milosevic. Substitutes not used: Taylor, Oakes (gk).
Liverpool (3-5-2): James; Scales, Ruddock, Babb; McAteer, Thomas, Barnes, McManaman, R Jones; Fowler, Collymore. Substitutes not used: Rush, M Wright, Warner (gk).
Referee: R Dilkes (Mossley, Lancs).
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