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 here yesterday with a victory that owed much to Robbie Fowler's prodigious eye for the enemy target.
Despite a hat-trick from the striker, whose presence in Glenn Hoddle's England side was decried in some quarters, the win was not secured without some severe turbulence for Liverpool's version of the Red Baron and his much- criticised squadron, with Aston Villa refusing to yield their unbeaten Premiership record without the most tenacious of fightbacks.
Indeed, if the England striker Dion Dublin, who had already scored his sixth and seventh goals in three games, had not had his 76th-minute spot- kick saved by David James - whom the Villa faithful will suggest should not have been on the pitch anyway, having brought down the substitute Julian Joachim in full flight in the incident that led to the penalty - who knows what might have happened with the score at 4-2.
It was that kind of game, in which none of the 39,241 crowd nor referee Peter Jones could take their eye off the action for a moment and it was somehow inevitable that Stan Collymore would feature prominently on such a stage against his former team-mates. Unfortunately, it was a return to his foolishness, rather than his finesse, of the past that led to his sending off for two bookable offences in a frantic second half.
Despite this welcome reversal 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. Houllier's only comfort had been the unexpectedly early return of top scorer Michael Owen after a hamstring injury, sustained in the 3-1 Worthington Cup defeat.
In that context, an upbeat Villa, still undefeated at the start and parading no fewer than four England full internationals in midweek, together with Under-21 player 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 of ours. Liverpool on the ropes? Not a bit of it. It was Villa who became the punchbag as all the Liverpool frustration of the last few weeks overflowed, in the best possible sense. Though how much was down to John Gregory's men believing too much of their own hype only they will know.
Whatever the psychology, the fact was that the afternoon encapsulated all that is best - and in Stan Collymore's case, the worst - about the Premiership. Within two minutes, Paul Ince had risen above young Barry to head home Patrik Berger's corner. A minor setback for Villa, presumably. But no. Five minutes later, Owen was dispatched on one of those splendid surging runs in which his power belies his physique, and although Ugo Ehiogu initially saved the day with a superbly timed tackle, Owen still succeeded in crossing the ball which Robbie Fowler headed straight at Oakes.
Almost immediately, Collymore burst clear at the other end, only for David James to emulate Oakes. But it was but a rare respite in those opening minutes as Liverpool forced the issue once more, with Villa's defence taking on the appearance of that rare phenomenon, a flat back three. This time, Redknapp provided the opening with an exquisite cross, and Fowler made no mistake with his header.
Owen might have had a third himself before John Gregory's men even had the opportunity to draw breath and retaliate, but his delicate lob was touched over by a back-pedalling Oakes.
In between, we were to witness the darker side of the seemingly reformed Stan Collymore. He would no doubt claim that his high challenge on Steve Harkness, whom he had accused of racial abuse last season, was merely mistimed, but whatever his mitigation, it was a reckless and nasty high tackle which connected with the defender's shin and led to him being substituted by Stig Bjornebye after a lengthy delay. It was directly in front of a linesman and 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.
Collymore could have made the decision to allow him to remain even more controversial had he capitalised on Paul Merson's fine cross in the minutes before half-time, but he inexplicably headed wide from directly in front of goal. Steve Watson and Mark Draper had also gone close before that, and with Dion Dublin striking a post from Merson's cross, Liverpool knew that they faced an anxious second half.
It proved just that with Dublin scoring two minutes after the break, before Fowler extended Liverpool's lead to 3-1. Villa failed to capitulate, and Collymore laid on the invitation for Dublin almost apologetically to tap in.
But Fowler scored once more and Collymore then decided to push Michael Owen after the two had clashed, and he was off, rightly so. Once Dublin spurned his chance of a hat-trick from the spot Villa were doomed with 10 men. But with Arsenal and Manchester United losing as well, they will no doubt accept defeat with equanimity.
United they fall, page 3
Exit Hodgson, page 5