Aston Villa 1
Half-time: 0-1 Attendance: 44,306
MATCHES WHERE the action looks and feels less significant than the preamble can be a difficult assignment, and Liverpool handled this one badly.
For the first game following the 10th anniversary of Hillsbrough, they would surely have loved to recapture a little of their old magic and inject some optimism for the future into an afternoon of emotion over the past.
Instead, the best they could manage was a first half when they were embarrassingly out-played by a Villa team furthering their recent rehabilitation and a second in which they often laid siege to the visitors' goal without ever really suggesting that they had the craft to put the ball in it.
Villa, timing their recovery from their slump too late to grab a European place, controlled midfield in that first half and, if their goal was a little fortuitous, it was also well deserved.
Alan Wright began the crucial attack with a deep cross from the left; Julian Joachim drove it back towards goal and Ian Taylor's foot gave it the deflection the ball needed to take it past David James and into the corner of the net.
"I thought we should have had it wrapped up by half-time," the Villa manager, John Gregory, said. "I was disappointed to go in only 1-0 up."
It had been shapeless stuff from Liverpool and the best that could be said for them after the break was that they at least went forward with some urgency. They did so with little accuracy, however, and without the injured Michael Owen to run at a resilient Villa defence clear-cut chances were at a premium.
With five minutes left, the generally subdued Robbie Fowler marked his last match before entering the limbo of suspension by heading wide. That was the closest Liverpool came to the equaliser Gerard Houllier felt they deserved.
"I was very disappointed with the first half, which was probably the worst we have played for a long time," he said. "The second half was better and they had to be given some credit for the way they tried to equalise."
The manager was unsure whether the emotion of the week and the afternoon had had an adverse affect on his players. "I would really have liked to win that game for the families and all those involved at Hillsbrough 10 years ago," he said. "The players at the service here this week were very moved by the memory of what happened. I'm unable to say whether it affected their performance today. Maybe at the beginning."
That would not have been entirely surprising. A mosaic of cards held up on the Kop commemorated the 96 dead, something that moved Mark Bosnich and Paul Merson to pay a courtesy visit in a show of solidarity before the kick-off.
There was a more dubious gesture from Bosnich later in the afternoon, when he responded to Fowler's urgings to hurry up with a free-kick, with a satirical wiggle of his hips. His booking was for time-wasting, rather than a dodgy sense of humour.Reuse content