Five-star Liverpool fill up for title drive
Aston Villa 0 Liverpool 5
The t-shirts on sale on the streets behind the Kop yesterday invited Sir Alex Ferguson to call "4-1-4-1-4-1" in case of emergency, but such is the pace of Liverpool's current title form that every week brings another famous victory to be commemorated. How about dialling "5-0-5-0-5-0" for Premier League champions?
As the gap to Manchester United closes to one point, so the mood on Merseyside changes from brittle resignation to bold hope. This time of year it is usually only the devotional, the hopelessly optimistic and the plain mad who dare to believe that the title might be coming back to Liverpool. Now all Anfield has reason to dream their team might reclaim it for the first time in 19 years: they certainly have the momentum.
Real Madrid, United and Aston Villa: the list of Liverpool's three most recent victims is impressive even before you consider that they have scored 13 goals in the process, including a hat-trick from Steven Gerrard yesterday. It has been a revival that even Rafael Benitez was not prepared to predict when, a mere 20 days ago, his team lost to Middlesbrough and their manager virtually gave up the title.
Now it is United's turn to malfunction. Not Liverpool, they destroyed a Villa side bereft of confidence and energy which was reduced to 10 men when Brad Friedel was dismissed moments before Gerrard scored his side's fifth. This was not the Villa of pre-Christmas, it was not a Villa recognisable from any of their early-season promise, but they were still dispatched in style by Liverpool.
Typical of Benitez, whose side also scored goals through Dirk Kuyt and Albert Riera, to complain that five was not enough for him on this occasion. Benitez still cajoles and directs his players from the touchline with paranoid intensity, but the Liverpool manager also says that he is keen to let his team off the leash to take advantage of this patch of dazzling form.
As ever, Benitez has his reasons for that. Liverpool's goal difference now exceeds United's by two goals and, although they are still one point behind having played a game more, that might yet be critical. This makes it six goals in the last three games for Gerrard and the manner in which he eclipsed Gareth Barry yesterday was nothing short of embarrassing for the Villa captain.
Barry looked knackered. So too Ashley Young, a peripheral figure. O'Neill left Gabriel Agbonlahor, booed by his own fans against Tottenham, on the bench and the less said about Emile Heskey's performance, the better. He was only a factor when O'Neill finally substituted him in the second half and Anfield stood up to applaud an old boy, who had caused them absolutely no problems at all.
The challenge from Villa is fading very fast, now three points adrift of Arsenal for the fourth Champions League place and it is hard to imagine how they will rediscover their momentum. From the very beginning Villa looked overwhelmed. They fell a goal behind within eight minutes and from then on there was no way back. Nigel Reo-Coker, a midfielder at right-back; Luke Young, a right-back at left-back, and the rest of O'Neill's regulars looking completely out of sorts.
The Villa manager picked a brave four-man midfield, which is not a tactic for the faint-hearted at Anfield, and within 40 minutes his team were three goals down. It had not left him with many options but, by half-time, those watching were wondering not whether Villa might salvage something, rather if they might just avoid a hammering.
It was a Villa defence that had been patched together from the few resources left to O'Neill and it played that way. Riera, enjoying one of his better games, won a free-kick on the left that Gerrard whipped in, Xabi Alonso headed on and clattered the bar. This is Liverpool's time – we know that because the ball dropped straight to the feet of Kuyt, who rattled in the first.
It just got worse for Villa, each goal more embarrassing than the last. The second started when Barry's free-kick from the right-wing dropped straight into Pepe Reina's gloves. Reina paused for a moment before clearing the ball downfield. Barry, trotting back, never got above a canter, so he was not in position to put pressure on Riera, who let Reina's kick bounce once before drilling it in.
Friedel almost created the third for Liverpool by passing the ball to Alvaro Arbeloa who, in a one-on-one situation with the Villa goalkeeper, tried inexplicably, to pass the ball to Fernando Torres. Gerrard scored the third after Nigel Reo-Coker, completely out of position, brought down Riera for a penalty.
It was a mauling and it was only likely to get worse. O'Neill changed the system at half-time, leaving John Carew, who had forced a decent save out of Reina in the first half, on his own up front and pushing the anonymous Heskey wide left. Ashley Young was dragged back to play in front of the four-man midfield. The result? Villa conceded again.
It was another baffling foul, this time by Carlos Cuellar on Kuyt on the edge of the area. After a bit of procrastination, Alonso rolled the ball a yard and Gerrard stroked it into the far corner. In the Anfield Road end, some Villa fans were already leaving. There were still 40 minutes to be played.
Torres nicked a penalty when he got to Alonso's through ball one pace ahead of Friedel and drew the American into a clumsy block, for which he was dismissed. Gerrard banged the fifth past the substitute Brad Guzan. Game over. Game on when they come back from the international break on 4 April – in this form the matches cannot come quickly enough for Liverpool.
Liverpool (4-2-3-1): Reina; Arbeloa (Agger, 77), Carragher, Skrtel, Aurelio; Mascherano, Alonso (Lucas, 66); Kuyt, Gerrard (Ngog, 80), Riera; Torres. Substitutes not used: Cavalieri (gk), Dossena, Hyypia, El Zhar.
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Friedel; Reo-Coker (Guzan, 65), Davies, Cuellar, L Young; Milner, Petrov, Barry, A Young; Heskey (Agbonlahor, 58), Carew (Gardner, 89). Substitutes not used: Delfouneso, Knight, Salifou, Shorey.
Booked: LIverpool Gerrard Aston Villa L Young.
Sent off: Friedel (64).
Referee: M Atkinson (West Yorkshire).
Man of the match: Gerrard.
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