Football: McManaman party piece ends Villa's resistance

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The Independent Online
Liverpool 3

Aston Villa 0

The one thing you cannot say about Liverpool is they are predictable. Frequently they give the impression they could trip up against anyone. So what happens when they field a severely depleted team? They win emphatically, of course.

Until the finale it was not particularly pretty, but Liverpool have flattered to deceive more than any femme fatale and they were due a misleading scoreline in their favour. Labouring in the first half, they were rejuvenated by Robbie Fowler's 56th-minute penalty and finished the match exuberantly with Steve McManaman's virtuoso dribble and Karlheinz Riedle's last minute goal.

"I've got to be delighted with the attitude and the commitment," Roy Evans, the Liverpool manager, said. "Given the disruption to the side, it was a fantastic performance."

Inevitably attention focused on Stan Collymore, who was returning to Anfield for the first time since his pounds 7m move. "I don't know what kind of reaction I'll get from the fans," he had said beforehand with some prescience because he was booed when he left the coach and with every touch in the match, yet was warmly applauded when he took the field for the warm-up. The supporters never did make up their minds about Stan The Man.

At least The Kop could identify their erstwhile enigma. The home team were deprived of 10 players, making the line-up as familiar to followers of the Liverpool second team as the first. It was a makeshift side and, unsurprisingly, they began in a disjointed fashion.

In the first minute Mark Bosnich had to fling himself low to his right to thwart Michael Thomas and after 10 Michael Owen's cross should have reaped more than McManaman's mis-hit shot. Even in the middle of this, however, David James had to make a double save to deny first Collymore then Dwight Yorke on the follow-up - and this proved to be a better pre- interval pointer.

Villa should have had a penalty when Alan Wright was fouled by Bjorn Tore Kvarme and after 38 minutes Liverpool's Jamie Carragher almost conceded an own goal when his lunge for Alan Wright's cross sliced the ball over his own bar. From the following corner Ugo Ehiogu attacked the ball like he had a grudge but his header flashed wide. From a range of 10 yards the minimum requirement was to be accurate.

It is dangerous to be profligate at Anfield even against a lacklustre Liverpool and after 55 minutes Villa were punished. Not for the first time this season, Michael Owen was exempt from any criticism and it was his turn that led to the home side going ahead.

Receiving the ball on the edge of the area, he lost Gareth Southgate with a muscle-defying change of direction and was brought down as he was about to shoot. Fowler had looked as rusty as an old nail for most of the match but instinct took over at the penalty and he shot into one corner as Mark Bosnich dived towards the other.

Suddenly Liverpool had escaped their inhibitions and the last 12 minutes were crowned with two lovely dribbles. McManaman scored a glorious goal last week against Celtic and last night's was scarcely less thrilling, intercepting a pass and running more than half the field before beating Bosnich with a precise shot into the corner.

Anything you can do... Owen's feet were as quick as McManaman's and a bewildering run sliced through the centre of the Villa defence. He could have shot but squared instead to Riedle, who clinically beat Bosnich.

Collymore's evening, his big return, finished with the Liverpool fans singing "Stanley, Stanley what's the score?" Not for the first time, the hype had been better than his performance.

Liverpool (4-4-2): James; Kvarme, Carragher, Babb, Bjornebye; McManaman, Murphy (Thompson, 73), Thomas, Berger; Owen, Fowler (Riedle, 75). Substitutes not used: Kennedy, Rizzo, Warner (gk).

Aston Villa (3-5-2): Bosnich; Ehiogu, Staunton, Southgate; Nelson, Taylor (Joachim, 62), Draper, Grayson Wright; Yorke, Collymore. Substitutes not used: Milosevic, Curcic, Scimeca, Oakes (gk).

Referee: M Bodenham (East Looe).