Gerrard treble adds to United's trouble

Liverpool captain spurs 5-0 rout of Aston Villa to cut champions' lead to a point

Steven Gerrard set the tone for Liverpool's Premier League pursuit of Manchester United yesterday when he said that Liverpool were "ready to pounce" on any mistake by the champions after a 5-0 demolition of Aston Villa at Anfield. Gerrard, who scored a hat-trick, said that Liverpool were on the champions' "shoulders" as United's lead at the top of the Premier League was reduced to one point.

United's devastating 2-0 defeat to Fulham on Saturday left the door open for Liverpool, who beat a Villa side that conceded two penalties – both converted by Gerrard – and had Brad Friedel dismissed. The margin of victory means that Liverpool's goal difference now exceeds United's by two but the champions have a game in hand over their pursuers.

"When you win convincingly everyone knows you are in form and that confidence is high," Gerrard said. "Manchester United are capable of winning all their remaining [nine] games, so it is important we keep winning and keep on their shoulders. They will go into games knowing that we are ready to pounce on them if they make a mistake."

Despite the margin of victory, Rafael Benitez said that he was disappointed his team had not scored more against Villa, who lost Friedel to a straight red card in the 64th minute. He will now miss the away game against United on 5 April. "We were playing 10 players and we knew we could score more," Benitez said. "I'm not happy because we had three or four chances on the counter-attack and could have done better. We need to take advantage because you never know what could happen with the goal difference."

On the title race, the Liverpool manager said his team would push United to the end. "We have said before that we need to do our job and wait for United to make mistakes," he said. "We are closer but they are still in a much better position than us. We need to keep pushing them every game."

It was a first league hat-trick for Gerrard, who is now the country's joint top goalscorer with Nicolas Anelka with 21 in all competitions. Chelsea, who lost to Tottenham on Saturday now trail Liverpool by three points in third place. United will return from the international break with Paul Scholes and Wayne Rooney – both dismissed on Saturday – serving bans as well as Nemanja Vidic. Pepe Reina broke the Liverpool record for reaching 100 clean sheets in the fewest games, just 196.

The Villa manager, Martin O'Neill, conceded his team had played "poorly. We have given away some really bad goals. If you want to be at the top on a regular basis, this is what it takes. You have to compete every game, four out of five is not enough."

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