Aston Villa 0 Liverpool 2

Hit-and-miss Crouch still the enigma
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Then, in the last six minutes, the referee, Steve Bennett, decided that Peter Crouch, on as a substitute, had been held down and Steven Gerrard scored from the penalty spot; with Villa still grieving, Xabi Alonso added a slightly flattering second.

In scoring twice the visitors matched their total from four previous away games and won on the road for the first time since April. By winning their two games in hand, they would even be right up with the trailing group behind Chelsea, but that would demand more consistency than Rafael Benitez has ever been able to inspire in domestic football.

Off the back of a comfortable victory over Anderlecht in midweek, he kept the same side, apart from Djibril Cissé replacing Crouch, and watched them knock the ball around prettily for 20 minutes without threatening the goalkeeper. But Cissé achieved nothing, either when playing down the middle with the equally ineffective Fernando Morientes or out on the right, and only after Crouch appeared with 20 minutes to play did the goals come.

The lanky striker had arrived to warmer applause from his former Villa supporters than Liverpool's, smilingly acknowledging the Holte End's chants of "There's only one Rodney Trotter". Within a couple of minutes, he kept a ball in play on the right and cut it back for Gerrard to demand a fine, low, one-handed save from Thomas Sorensen.

Shortly after that, the ubiquitous Gerrard fed another substitute, Boudewijn Zenden, whose cross Crouch headed straight at a grateful goalkeeper. And when Zenden repeated the trick, the young defender Liam Ridgewell leant too heavily on Trotter - sorry, Crouch - to concede the sort of penalty that might be awarded 10 times in every game but rarely is. Although Crouch must have been tempted to grab the ball, as the best chance of breaking his Liverpool duck, Gerrard took command and tucked the shot away, consolidating his position as the team's leading scorer and all-round ace.

In the last minute Crouch twice missed out as crosses fizzed across the area, only for Olof Mellberg to clear to Alonso, whose fierce drive flew in to negate any argument about the penalty. Not that that was going to stop a losing manager in high dudgeon.

"It was a terrible, terrible decision," said Villa's manager, David O'Leary. "I thought the referee couldn't wait to give decisions to their [big] name players. But I have to be careful what I say because they're very precious people."

That jibe at officialdom, whether delivered in a soft Irish brogue or not, was not the wisest from a man already on a charge for his comments to Graham Poll after the recent derby, which his team won at Birmingham. Just as well, since they have lost the other four League games in the last six.

Investment in the team is badly needed and the latest consortium, of Irish builders, appears to be a more realistic proposition than previous ones, if the 81-year-old Doug Ellis can only be persuaded that his time has gone. On the other hand, O'Leary rather undermined his own case for funds by recalling: "Two years ago to the day we went into the bottom three, with 80 per cent of this same squad, but stayed together and ended up fifth. That's the belief we've got to have." It takes some believing.

Milan Baros, "the one top player I've signed", according to the manager, fought harder than on many occasions in a Liverpool shirt, but Villa had little to offer until Steven Davis was moved inside and Juan Pablo Angel replaced Kevin Phillips. Even then, sturdy defending kept them well away from Jose Reina, allowing Benitez to bask in a seventh clean sheet this season, as many as in the whole of the last campaign.