Football: Visitors exploit Liverpool lethargy

Liverpool 0 Aston Villa 1
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The Independent Online
ON A DAY when the memories of 10 years ago hung heavy over Anfield, Liverpool were unrecognisable as the club that dominated English football for decades.

Gerard Houllier's discreetly horrified face said all that was needed about their performance in the first half of this, their third home defeat in the Premiership this season. He was probably in the minority in believing that their increased rate of activity after the break entitled them to be anything better than runners-up.

Liverpool's immediate problems, during what promises to be a bleak run- up to a welcome season's end, are obviously in the striking department - the only area of the team that has remained relatively efficient during its decline.

With Michael Owen injured and Robbie Fowler suspended, the whole cutting edge of the operation will be blunted. A five minute appearance from Sean Dundee was enough to underline the lack of attractive options for Houllier over the coming month.

Perhaps even more worrying for him was the way that Liverpool were frequently out-played and overrun in midfield. John Gregory had opted to anchor it solidly by playing Mark Draper and Ian Taylor in central roles, leaving Paul Merson on the bench. There was a risk that it would prove all anchor and no billowing sail, but in the end it worked very nicely.

Taylor got the winning goal, although how voluntary his vital touch on Julian Joachim's shot was only he will know. But Draper's was perhaps the most eye-catching performance on the day, with his energy and accuracy contrasting with the fitful contributions of Paul Ince and Jamie Redknapp.

After a sticky patch that has, in all probability, cost Villa their chance of qualifying for Europe, expectations are rising at the club once more.

A run of four games undefeated represents a dramatic improvement, but,even so, it still left Gregory disappointed on two scores - that they had not taken all 12 points from four games they could have won, and that they had not had this latest one in the bag at half-time.

Coming from a man who was last involved in a victory at Anfield 21 years ago, that is a mark of how little fear Liverpool strike into the opposition these days.

For all that, Houllier, the Liverpool manager, was adamant that he will not be coaxed away elsewhere, dismissing rumours that Paris St-Germain have targeted him as "absolute nonsense."

The Frenchman is still in a honeymoon period on Merseyside, with few blaming him personally for the deterioration of the side, but his assessment of his problems and what is needed to solve them is naturally becoming more realistic.

"I'm enjoying the job," he insisted. "I know where we are and where we're going. We just have a huge task in front of us."

Goal: Taylor (33) 0-1.

Liverpool (4-4-2): James; Song (Dundee, 86), Carragher, Babb, Bjornebye (Leonhardsen, h-t); McManaman, Redknapp, Ince, Matteo; Fowler, Riedle. Substitutes not used: Staunton, Ferri, Friedel (gk.)

Aston Villa (4-4-2): Bosnich; Watson, Calderwood, Southgate, Wright; Stone, Taylor, Draper, Hendrie (Merson, 69); Dublin, Joachim (Barry, 90). Substitutes not used; Oakes, Delaney, Vassell.

Referee: J Winter (Lincoln). Bookings: Liverpool Song, Riedle. Aston Villa Bosnich.

Man of the match: Draper.

Attendance: 44,306.