Go back a few years and Aston Villa have a glorious history, the presence of their under-19s in today’s NextGen Series final in Italy suggests they have a promising future, but the present? That is a worry.
With seven matches to go, the seven-times champions are in the bottom three with the prospect of being relegated for the first time since 1987 looming. And as midlands rivals Nottingham Forest, Derby, Wolves, Leicester and Coventry know, an instant return is by no means guaranteed.
Though Christian Benteke gave them the lead at Villa Park yesterday, Villa failed for the 15th successive match to keep a clean sheet, conceding second-half goals to Jordan Henderson and, via the penalty spot, Steven Gerrard.
Gerrard, who played with a pain-killing injection in his heel, then cleared Benteke’s header off the line to preserve a victory that enabled Liverpool to climb to within three points of neighbours Everton.
“He was in a bit of pain and struggling to get his boot on,” said manager Brendan Rogers. “Many other players would not play or even train, but he did what it takes to play. He’s a wonderful professional.”
Rodgers added: “I thought the players were brilliant today. In the second half the mentality and quality were outstanding. Once we got to 2-1 we controlled the game.”
His counterpart, Paul Lambert, said: “I didn’t think there was much in the game. We are playing well but it would be great for confidence to keep a clean sheet. Confidence is a big part of a game of football.”
Confidence, and experience. Villa lack the latter and that became a problem when Liverpool levelled and confidence dipped. Initially Villa, bolstered by back-to-back wins, looked bright. Their youngsters wanted the ball and looked to play it around. Sometimes this led to being caught in possession and given their pace and strength in attack Villa should probably have played the ball forward earlier, but they still created a series of half-chances and should have led after 16 minutes when Matt Lowton’s fine pass found Gabby Agbolahor in the clear, but he put his shot too close to Pepe Reina. Fifteen minutes later Villa struck, Agbolahor cushioning a long ball from Ashley Westwood for Benteke to thrash in his 18th goal of an excellent season.
At this stage, Benteke was monstering Jamie Carragher whose final season is beginning to look as uncomfortable as Gary Neville’s was, whereas Luis Suarez was being well-marshalled by Nathan Baker and Ron Vlaar. Suarez, who began wide but then swapped with Philippe Coutinho, was gifted his best chance by a wayward back-pass by Barry Bannan but wasted it.
At the break Rodgers told his team to raise the tempo and be more positive, but even he cannot have envisaged how swiftly Liverpool would equalise. A Gerrard clearance found Coutinho wide. The Villa defence were drawn towards him allowing Jordan Henderson to run off Westwood into space. Coutinho’s pass was sublime and Henderson’s finish immaculate.
Villa have let slip losing positions regularly this season and there was a sense of inevitability about the way the game now turned. Coutinho, fed by Suarez, rolled a great chance wide and Glen Johnson hit the post before the effervescent Suarez turned inside Baker and was needlessly felled for an undisputed penalty. Gerrard slid it past Brad Guzan for his 11th goal against Villa.
Villa sought an instant riposte but Andreas Weimann shot over from close-range when unmarked, then Gerrard cleared spectacularly from Benteke following a West wood corner. Thereafter Liverpool were in command.
To flourish Villa’s narrow midfield requires Cafu and Roberto Carlos at full-back, not two lads out of the Football League, and as Lowton and Bennett tired Villa increasingly thumped long balls which Carragher and Daniel Agger dealt with easily. This was when the lack of experience showed. Rodgers was talking about Gerrard, but might easily have been pin-pointing Villa’s weakness when he said: “As a manager you want balance in the squad. You want players for tomorrow but it is vital you have players for today. Gerrard has huge experience and there were moments in the second half when he was organising the team, being vocal, being the leader. You need that.”
Villa, however, have made a policy decision to go with youth this season in the hope that it will pay off in the long-term. “That’s always been the remit,” confirmed Lambert, “you have to be big enough and brave enough to keep going.” Lambert is, what about his owner? All the evidence suggests Randy Lerner will stick with his manager, and it would be unfair not to given his budget restraints, but no one thought Martin O’Neill at risk. Both managers professed themselves shocked at events at Sunderland with Lambert adding: “Nobody is safe.”