Football: Dismay and disarray for Villa

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The Independent Online
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AMONG the spectators at Anfield on Saturday was Tony Blair, accompanied by his wife and children. Football clearly was on the agenda, although the Labour leader would not commit himself to a specific team.

Also present was the England manager, Terry Venables, who felt able to form a clear policy over the question of whether Liverpool's Steve McManaman should be drafted into the squad for Wednesday's friendly against Romania in place of the injured Darren Anderton.

McManaman's lively excursions down both wings played a major part in breaking down the resistance of a team who have experienced dramatically differing fortunes in recent weeks. Villa's victory over Internazionale in the Uefa Cup has been counterbalanced by four successive League defeats.

Ron Atkinson, the Villa manager, did not allow this latest setback to put him off his stroke. Chewing industriously - surely a sponsorship deal with Wrigley's cannot be far away - he argued against the validity of Liverpool's opening goal, which came from a free-kick in the 21st minute after the Villa goalkeeper, Mark Bosnich - under pressure from Ian Rush - was adjudged to have handled a back-pass from Andy Townsend.

Atkinson claimed Bosnich had not touched the ball. 'It was good chest control,' he said with a smile, but the linesman and referee thought differently. From the resulting free-kick, close to the penalty spot, Liverpool's central defender Neil Ruddock - a latter-day Ron Yeats - drove home his first goal of the season through a forest of green shirts.

It was a spot of good fortune for the home side, and they were suitably encouraged. Six minutes later, after Rob Jones, the Liverpool right-back, had careered down the wing, cut in and had a shot blocked, Robbie Fowler reached the loose ball ahead of straining Villa limbs, smashing it high and hard into the far corner of the net.

At the age of only 19, this dogged little striker still looks too raw to be promoted from the England Under-21 squad, but his performance on Saturday must have established him near the head of the queue in Venables' mind.

After Guy Whittingham's angled shot had reduced the deficit for the visitors shortly before the break, Fowler effectively ended the match as a contest in the 57th minute by picking his spot from the edge of the box when there seemed no particular danger.

Although Staunton pulled a goal back with virtually the last kick of the game after a lamentable misunderstanding between David James and his defence, Villa's body language at that moment spoke volumes. The goalkeeper and seven beaten players stood stock-still in dismay, some holding their heads, others with hands on hips. They will not be the last victims.

Goals: Fowler (26) 1-0; Ruddock (21) 2-0; Whittingham (37) 2-1; Fowler (57) 3-1; Staunton (90) 3-2.

Liverpool: (4-4-2): James; Jones, Scales, Ruddock, Babb; McManaman, Barnes, Molby, Bjornebye; Rush (Redknapp, 78); Fowler. Substitutes not used: Clough, Stensgaard (gk).

Aston Villa: (4-4-2): Bosnich; Barrett, McGrath, Ehiogu, Staunton; Houghton (Lamptey, 72), Townsend (King, 31), Parker, Yorke; Saunders, Whittingham. Substitute not used: Spink (gk).

Referee: K Burge (Torquay).