Aston Villa. .2
THE KOP, who pride themselves on being polite on these occasions, welcomed Dean Saunders back into their hearts in customary style as the teams took the field. It was the last good word they had for Villa's former Anfield star.
The Welsh international acknowledged their salute with a cheerful thumbs-up. But the message he delivered later carried much more meaning. Seizing on a dreadful error by Torben Piechnik, who dallied on the ball in his own penalty area, Saunders silenced the Kop with a simple goal which may well prove as important as any he scores in a Villa shirt.
It enables the Birmingham side, who last won the championship in 1981, to share this morning's Premier League leadership, on points at least. At this stage, with respect to Norwich, it is difficult to imagine anything other than a dog- fight for the title between Villa and Manchester United.
Villa looked for a long time as though they might be in for a hiding. Even this makeshift Liverpool line-up had them under the cosh for most of the first half, and the goal by John Barnes that gave the Merseysiders the lead arrived with a sense of inevitability.
It was executed in one movement by the England international, who received Mike Marsh's cut- back in the centre of the penalty area, turned and struck home before Villa's defenders could react. Villa might twice have gone in front themselves through Dalian Atkinson, dangerous on the counter-attack, but Liverpool ought to have established their superiority sooner, such was the relentlessness of their surging attacks.
'I told my lot at half-time that if we did not roll our sleeves up we could end up well buried,' Ron Atkinson, Aston Villa's manager, said afterwards.
His team responded to the prescription, although a goal out of the blue was the catalyst for their comeback. Garry Parker, who has a reputation for the spectacular, put them level nine minutes into the second half with a first-time shot that went in off the crossbar.
Villa had lost Atkinson at half- time and they needed something to give them heart. The goal did exactly that.
It also forced Liverpool to go forward in greater numbers, exposing them to Villa's swift counters. None the less, there will have been strong words said about the way they fell behind, and Piechnik, who dropped to his knees in despair as the ball hit the net, will not have slept easily last night.
Saunders, whose two-goal home debut helped crush Liverpool at Villa Park last September, nine days after his pounds 2.3m move, has endured a lean patch since, but yesterday might be enough to restore his goalscoring health. And provided his strike partner's latest setback is short-lived, it may set Villa on an irresistible rise.
Liverpool: M Hooper; M Marsh, R Jones, P Stewart, T Piechnik, S Bjornebye, S McManaman, J Redknapp (D Hutchison, 78 min), R Rosenthal (M Walters, 70 min), J Barnes, M Thomas. Sub not used: D James (gk). Manager: G Souness.
Aston Villa: N Spink; E Barrett, S Staunton, S Teale, P McGrath, K Richardson, R Houghton, G Parker, D Saunders, D Atkinson (S Froggatt, h/t; N Cox, 87 min), D Yorke. Sub not used: M Bosnich (gk). Manager: R Atkinson.
Referee: K Hackett (Sheffield).
Goals: Barnes (1-0, 42 min); Parker (1-1, 54 min); Saunders (1-2, 64 min).