Football: Saunders savours satisfying moments

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The Independent Online
Aston Villa. . .4

Liverpool. . . .2

DEAN SAUNDERS brought to life his own dreams and raised inevitable headlines of the Liverpool nightmare variety with two goals in his first home appearance for Villa, nine days after Graeme Souness sold him for pounds 2.3m.

The effervescent Welsh international foward, his talent surely wasted at Anfield, won the hearts of Villa Park with a splendid equaliser on the stroke of halftime. Midway through the second half he brought joyful celebration to the Holte End with his second goal as Villa went 3-1 up. Minutes later, hungry for the hat-trick, he rattled a post with another thunderous attempt.

Saunders, in the second half at least, looked the player Liverpool presumably wanted when they paid pounds 2.9m to Derby for him 13 months ago. Full of running, full of verve, he brought excitement in the crowd each time the ball came near him. If he had a point to prove he could hardly have made it more emphatically.

It was an inspired display, as was to be expected in the circumstances. Speaking afterwards, he had the good grace to bury whatever frustrations he might feel about the failure of his Anfield adventure and predict that Liverpool's current worries would be shortlived. Even before yesterday, such optimism was thin on the ground, and Liverpool's record of nine points from nine Premier League games so far will provoke a run of inquests still more searching than those already held.

Liverpool's problems are not, of course, entirely of their own making. Seven of the players picked yesterday would not have been on the field had Souness had all his options available, a point he stressed in a brief appearance at the post-match press conference, to which his contribution amounted to a tersely delivered statement, followed by a discourteous and immediate departure when asked if it was inevitable that Saunders would score.

In the absence of John Barnes, Ian Rush, Rob Jones, Paul Stewart, Ronnie Whelan and Steve McManaman, this was effectively a reserve side. Nonetheless, with Denmark's Torben Piechnik installed alongside Mark Wright in the centre, Souness would have hoped for fewer holes in his defence. Piechnik, who was booked for two cynical challenges on Saunders, will need to bed in, but Wright, the established kingpin, does not provide the sound authority that Alan Hansen and Mark Lawrenson used to give.

In the first half, with a five-man midfield organised to contain, Souness felt Liverpool played as well as they had all season, but then again Villa did not then have the self-belief to attack them. It took an explosive end to the opening period to bring that out.

To begin with, they suffered a shock. Hugely relieved when Ronny Rosenthal had astonishingly hit the crossbar when facing an open goal, Villa fell behind when Mark Walters, their former winger, volleyed David Burrows's cross from the left wide of Nigel Spink's right hand. But then came inspiration as Saunders, previously limited to one rather weak attempt at goal, darted between Wright and Piechnik to convert Steve Froggatt's cross at close range.

In the second half, Villa discovered Liverpool to be much more vulnerable than they had clearly thought. Dalian Atkinson turned Garry Parker's mis-hit shot into Villa's second goal, Saunders ran on to Atkinson's neat pass for his own second, and Atkinson was the provider again as Parker put the home side in full control. When Rosenthal made amends for his earlier blunder by heading over Spink, the goal was very much a consolation for the visitors.

Ron Atkinson evidently cannot believe his good fortune, having signed Saunders at the third attempt. 'The lad scored 24 goals at Liverpool, which is hard to believe in the circumstances. If he gets as many as that for us this season, I shall be absolutely delighted. But,' he added diplomatically, 'there are various reasons for the time being right to sell a player.'

Whether Saunders can lead Villa in a meaningful challenge for the championship they won in 1981 remains to be seen. Atkinson believes that he is near to completing the assembly of a team capable of scaling such heights, but it was noticeable in the first half that their midfield frequently lacked ideas when it came to delivering the ball into the areas in which Saunders could make his presence tell.

Aston Villa: N Spink; E Barrett, S Staunton, S Teale, P McGrath, K Richardson, R Houghton, G Parker, D Saunders, D Atkinson, S Froggatt. Subs not used: D Yorke, D Kubicki, L Sealey (gk). Manager: R Atkinson.

Liverpool: D James; T Piechnik, D Burrows, S Nicol, J Redknapp, M Wright, R Rosenthal, M Marsh, D Hutchison, J Molby, M Walters. Subs not used: N Tanner, S Harkness, B Grobbelaar (gk). Manager: G Souness.

Referee: P Don (Middlesex).

Goals: Walters (43 min, 0-1); Saunders (45 min, 1-1); Atkinson (54 min, 2-1); Saunders (66 min, 3-1); Parker (79 min, 4-1); Rosenthal (84 min, 4-2).

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