Football: Fowler up to his tricks

Top three clubs stumble on the day Collymore is sent off and Dublin is put on the spot after scoring twice
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Aston Villa 2 Liverpool 4

Dublin 47, 63 Ince 2 Fowler 7, 58, 66

Half-time: 0-2 Attendance: 39,241

GERARD HOULLIER, flying solo for the past 10 days since Roy Evans bailed out of a supposedly stricken craft, finally brought some stability to Liverpool with a victory that owed much to Robbie Fowler's prodigious eye for the target.

Despite a hat-trick from the dashing front-man, whose presence in Glenn Hoddle's England side was decried in some quarters because of a recent lack of goalscoring prowess, the win was not secured without some severe turbulence for Liverpool's version of the Red Baron and his much-condemned squadron. But once their opponents had been reduced to 10 men in the 68th minute with the dismissal of Stan Collymore for two bookable offences, there was no way even a typically resourceful Aston Villa could rally.

From a glorious exponent of the beautiful game to bete noire, it requires only a second for Collymore to metamorphose into the latter. In the first of those incidents he would no doubt claim that his high challenge on Steve Harkness, whom he had accused of racial abuse last season, was merely mistimed. Whatever his plea of mitigation, it was a reckless high tackle which connected with the defender's knee and led to him being removed by stretcher after a lengthy delay.

If the referee, Peter Jones, saw it clearly, as he appeared to, then a red card should have been his only option. Instead the official brandished a yellow.

The enigmatic Villa striker was probably fortunate that the injury turned out to be only damaged knee ligaments. This, remember, was the man accused by Harkness in the aftermath of their last confrontation of trying to break his leg.

"Stan could have been sent off and he was lucky to stay on," conceded his manager, John Gregory. "I think it was definitely a grudge held over from last season."

However the player himself denied that was the case, and claimed: "If the referee had seen fit to give a red card he would have done so."

The offence which resulted in Collymore being sent off was an off-the ball push on Michael Owen, whom the Villa firebrand accused of a two-footed tackle. Gregory hardly poured water on the fire by insisting: "Michael Owen has such a sweet, innocent baby face, but Stan believes he 'topped' him. I don't condone Stan's reaction, but when that happens it's bound to make you angry."

That contretemps could not detract from the magnificent attacking play by both teams. Gregory's men, who must have been at least heartened by the defeats of their most potent rivals, Manchester United and Arsenal, deserve the utmost credit for obdurately refusing to yield their unbeaten Premiership record without the most defiant of responses.

Their defensive spine which has served them so well this season, had been seemingly fractured irreparably by the interval. But if England striker Dion Dublin, who had already scored his sixth and seventh goals in three games, had not had his 76th-minute penalty saved by David James the outcome might have been entirely different with the score then at 4-2. James had sent the substitute Julian Joachim hurtling to the turf in the incident that led to the penalty.

Despite this welcome change in fortunes it will still be no holiday for Monsieur Houllier. The task remains a daunting one for the former schoolmaster. Still as they say, those who can, do. Those who can't, coach Liverpool. In that context, an upbeat Villa, still undefeated at the start and parading no fewer than four England full internationals in midweek, together with the Under-21 Gareth Barry, must have been the envy of the Frenchman.

Which just goes to show that you can take nothing for granted in this capricious game. Liverpool on the ropes? Not a bit of it. It was Villa who became their punchbag as all the Liverpool frustration of the last few weeks overflowed, although generally in the best possible sense. Though how much was down to Gregory's men believing too much of their hype only they will know.

Whatever the psychology, the plain facts were that within two minutes, Paul Ince had risen above Barry to head home Patrik Berger's corner. A minor set-back for Villa, we assumed. But no. There was little respite in those opening minutes as Liverpool continued to force the issue, with Villa's defence taking on the appearance of that rare phenomenon, a flat back three. This time, Jamie Redknapp provided the opening with an exquisite cross, and Fowler was well placed to execute a fine header.

Collymore could have made the decision to allow him to remain even more controversial had he capitalised on Paul Merson's fine cross just before half-time, but he headed wide. Steve Watson and Mark Draper had also gone close prior to that, with Dublin striking a post from Merson's cross.

It proved an anxious second half for Liverpool with Dublin scoring two minutes after the break, before Fowler extended their lead again to 3- 1. Villa failed to capitulate, and Collymore laid on the invitation for Dublin to tap in. But it was Fowler's day, and he made it as safe as it can be with Villa in current mood with his third, and Liverpool's fourth.