This was the Gareth Barry transfer saga caught in 90 minutes. Both teams set their stalls out early and refused to budge. And while Liverpool always believed their superior class would tell they also did not sufficiently account for Villa's energy, doggedness and growing ambition. A draw in both contests – even Martin O'Neill concedes he can only count on Barry, a pale performer yesterday, "for the foreseeable future" – although Liverpool will certainly feel like the losers after Fernando Torres limped off with a damaged hamstring. With Steven Gerrard already sidelined after his groin operation, that will have sent a shudder through their ranks.
For their manager, Rafael Benitez, the only relief will be that there is an international break coming up and although that is not good news for Spain it may be for the Spaniard. He did not want to do without Barry and he certainly will not want to do without Torres for too long after he pulled up gingerly mid-way through the first half, clutching the back of his right leg as he tried to run on to an over-hit pass.
It does appear to be more of a strain than a tear, although Torres immediately walked off the pitch. There will be further information after a scan today. "The only positive news is that we have the break now," Benitez said. "If he's out for 10-15 days it's OK." Liverpool have a similar prognosis for Gerrard. That is still a tight timetable with Manchester United coming up in the league and then Marseilles, away, in the Champions League.
And this was a tight contest. With the impressive Javier Mascherano returning, Liverpool had a Beijing gold medal winner but this was not a game that hit Olympic heights. A victory, after Chelsea's draw, would have given them clear leadership of the Premier League, and their best start since 1994, which would have been incentive enough to attack boldly. But this is Benitez's Liverpool, who have edged their way through the season so far, including that nervy tie with Standard Liege, and they had no intention of changing their approach.
For a while the liveliest stuff came off-field. O'Neill had marched towards Benitez as the two emerged. He shook his hand when it had, probably, given the feeling between the two, crossed his mind to shake him by the throat. "I'm sure it will be absolutely fine," O'Neill later said of the pair's relationship. "Until the next time." Then Benitez was given some fairly basic abuse from the Villa supporters. "I was watching the television one day and they said that the most difficult accent is the Birmingham accent so I didn't really understand," he said.
And so it went on. Villa fans bated Liverpool's with chants for Barry while the visiting supporters chided the midfielder for not joining them. "I thought he did very well," said O'Neill, although the evidence ran contrary to his assessment. "Three weeks ago I would have imagined he would have been playing against us. We're downright relieved he's with us for the foreseeable future." That phrase again.
But, sometimes, that is what managers have to deal in. Having spent heavily O'Neill is waiting for the pieces to come together. He got £12m-man James Milner on as a second-half substitute but is still waiting for Carlos Cuellar and Steve Sidwell to recover from ankle injuries.
It will take time to gel but there is great promise in O'Neill's squad and, despite a disappointing display, Barry engineered Villa's best moment when he cleverly picked out Ashley Young's run. Inside the area the winger, when perhaps he should have taken on the shot, checked to find John Carew. It seemed certain the Norwegian striker would score but instead he went for precision and Pepe Reina's trailing leg scuffed the ball away.
Interestingly, and maybe not surprisingly, Robbie Keane fired into life only when Torres departed. Less intimidated, maybe, he had the 19-year-old David Ngog as a strike partner and took a degree of responsibility. Best of all was his clever reverse pass which found Ngog, only for the Frenchman's fierce shot to skim over.
As Villa won a series of corners and free-kicks, so Liverpool also carved out a couple of opportunities. Nicky Shorey inadvertently diverted Xabi Alonso's shot over, Brad Friedel was almost embarrassed by Andrea Dossena's dipping cross before Mascherano lobbed the ball forward. He found Keane. Through on goal he had to wait for the ball to come down, which allowed Nigel Reo-Coker to scamper back and challenge. As Keane shot wide he appealed for a penalty. It might have been but even Benitez – who expects to complete the £8m capture of Espanyol winger Albert Riera today – was not sure and was not going to argue.
And so Villa had their first goalless game in 46 encounters. "I'm not surprised," said O'Neill when reminded of that statistic. "If you had said to me that we would have kept a clean sheet then I would have guaranteed that we would have won," he added. "But I was wrong." But then who expected Barry to be at Villa Park come September?
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Friedel; L Young (Milner, 64), Laursen, Davies, Shorey (Gardner, 79); Reo-Coker, Petrov, Barry, A Young; Carew, Agbonlahor. Substitutes not used: Guzan (gk), Harewood, Knight, Salifou, Routledge.
Liverpool (4-4-2): Reina; Arbeloa, Carragher, Skrtel, Dossena; Kuyt (Aurelio, 71), Alonso, Mascherano, Lucas; Keane (Benayoun, 79), Torres (Ngog, 30). Substitutes not used: Cavalieri (gk), Agger, Babel, El Zhar.
Referee: M Atkinson (W Yorkshire).
Booked: Liverpool Skrtel, Dossena.
Man of the match: Mascherano.
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