Football: Saunders lands the inevitable sucker punch: Phil Shaw assesses Liverpool's plight after watching Aston Villa inflict their latest defeat

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GRAEME SOUNESS is having to juggle resources like none of his Liverpool predecessors in three decades. Keeping all the balls in the air is hard enough with one hand tied behind your back, which is what being deprived of seven first-choice players must be like. It is practically impossible when you have also blindfolded yourself.

Souness could see no place in his long-term strategy for Dean Saunders, who with a certain inevitability heaped short-term embarrassment on his former club by scoring twice for Villa. A 4-2 defeat could have been more humiliating had Saunders himself not been blinkered by visions of a hat-trick to the fact that colleagues were twice better placed.

So has Souness made a serious mistake? Tommy Smith, no Anfield apologist, believes Saunders was simply unsuited to the traditional Liverpool style, in which the front men hold the ball up with their backs to goal and lay it off to supporting midfield players.

In which case Souness either made a pounds 2.9m blunder by buying Saunders, or should have adapted the pattern. Instead he is committed to a build-up tailored to the more technically adept Ian Rush, who is 31 in a month's time and injured again. Time will test his judgement, but in several other cases the jury is already out.

By steering Liverpool into Europe at a time of massively expensive ground improvements, Souness's team-building has had to be done with an eye on balancing not only the books, but also the numbers of English and 'foreign' players. That explains some transactions; it makes others mystifying.

Why, for instance, did he sell Peter Beardsley and keep Ronny Rosenthal? Why buy Istvan Kozma, an unproven Hungarian, but let Ray Houghton go? Liverpool's loss has certainly been Villa's gain as regards Houghton, whose ability to anticipate Saunders' surges was a major factor in the outcome.

It also seemed an injudicious time to introduce Torben Piechnik, who had started the week preparing for FC Copenhagen's match in Finland. Though strong in the air, the Danish defender was exposed by his unfamiliarity with his team- mates, by Saunders' pace and that of the game.

After 15 months in charge, and more changes if fewer injuries than Souness, Ron Atkinson is now close to a side capable of improving significantly on last season's seventh place. Yet until Rosenthal had made the miss of this or any season and Mark Walters promptly volleyed the visitors ahead, Villa lacked imagination against a stifling 4-5-1 formation.

Suddenly, they were swarming over Liverpool like wasps around a Piechnik. As well as his goals, Saunders rattled the woodwork; Dalian Atkinson, dubbed 'Sicknote' by the Villa fanzine because of his past tendency to absenteeism, was present and correct when Garry Parker's mis-cued shot came his way; and Parker hit the goal his industry deserved before Rosenthal restored respectability.

But this was Saunders' day, when many of the 37,863 who comprised the Premier League's best crowd so far believed they had witnessed the start of something. Premature optimism, perhaps, though the bookie who gave Ron Atkinson 50-1 against his team taking the title surely displayed generosity of which Souness will stand accused until Liverpool start climbing.

Goals: Walters (44) 0-1; Saunders (45) 1-1; Atkinson (54) 2-1; Saunders (66) 3-1; Parker (79) 4-1; Rosenthal (84) 4-2.

Aston Villa: Spink; Barrett, Staunton, Teale, McGrath, Richardson, Houghton, Parker, Saunders, Atkinson, Froggatt. Substitutes not used: Yorke, Kubicki, Sealey (gk).

Liverpool: James; Piechnik, Burrows, Nicol, Redknapp, Wright, Rosenthal, Marsh, Hutchison, Molby, Walters. Substitutes not used: Tanner, Harkness, Grobbelaar (gk).

Referee: P Don (Middlesex).