Football: Ambition of Villa ruined by Fowler: Resurgent Liverpool

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Liverpool. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .2

Aston Villa. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .1

ASTON VILLA contributed hugely to a match which insulated body and soul against an arctic wind at Anfield yesterday, and yet they remain 15 points adrift of Manchester United, and even the distinction of being best of the rest may elude them this time.

Whether Liverpool can catch and overtake the pack must still be doubtful, despite this vibrant victory. They punished Villa for two lapses of concentration and might, in a torrid finale, have achieved a more decisive advantage.

Robbie Fowler, the young forward who has relieved some of the pressure on his manager, Graeme Souness, this season, made full use of those gaps in Villa's cover to give Liverpool the lead, just before half-time, then create the winner, for Jamie Redknapp, after 62 minutes. In between, Dalian Atkinson salvaged a goal Villa had long threatened, and, although they slipped behind a second time, played with the belief that they could again leave here with three points.

Bruce Grobbelaar was a principal figure in Liverpool's success, making important blocks and tipping a magnificent volley from Dean Saunders on to his crossbar. But then Mark Bosnich, in the Villa goal, was equally influential. His double save from Mark Walters, late in the contest, was stunning.

Villa's manager, Ron Atkinson, who gave his players a one-hour roasting after their mid-week capitulation against Southampton, was more satisfied and philosophical yesterday. He said: 'That's the sort of performance I'm looking for. If anything, I thought we played better than we did when we won here last year.'

Liverpool might have feared another defeat until Fowler forced a corner in the 44th minute. When Dominic Matteo crossed, Fowler had the luxury of an unchallenged leap, and a back-header eluded Bosnich to register his 11th goal in as many games.

Villa's control and persistence pressed Liverpool into their own half and eventually produced a breakthrough after 54 minutes. Andy Townsend lent weight to the attack and Steve Nicol, pursued by Atkinson, failed to reach Grobbelaar with a header. Atkinson calmly dragged the ball inside the committed Nicol to equalise.

Liverpool were subdued, Villa rampant, and another wave seemed destined to swamp the home side. Instead, it broke down, Fowler responded with an exquisitely delivered through ball and Redknapp struck his shot beneath the advancing Bosnich.

Liverpool (4-4-2): Grobbelaar; Nicol, Wright, Ruddock, Harkness; Redknapp, Molby (Walters, 80), Barnes, Matteo; Rush, Fowler. Substitutes not used: Clough, James (gk).

Aston Villa (4-4-2): Bosnich; Cox, McGrath, Barrett, Small (Whittingham, 80); Houghton, Richardson, Parker, Townsend; Atkinson, Saunders. Substitutes not used: Ehiogu, Spink (gk).

Referee: A Wilkie (Chester-le-Street).

Reports, results, pages 30, 31