Fragile confidence lies at heart of Liverpool's poor showing

Aston Villa 0 Liverpool 0
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The Independent Football

The runes of autumn can be misleading. Ask Tottenham Hotspur, who led the Premiership last September, or Manchester United, who languished in mid-table. Yet though the stencilling is barely dry on the back of thousands of new replica shirts the portents for Liverpool cannot be said to be promising.

Nine days into the season they are already five points behind Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea. United proved last year that this is a small margin, but they believe in themselves. Liverpool are a team of more fragile confidence, their vulnerability not obviously dispelled by the engagement of a psychologist.

A point at Villa Park is not a poor result, Villa had a formidable home record last year and have capable players if not exceptional ones. The worrying aspect for Liverpool followers was not so much the result as the poverty of performance.

The flowing football which is the hallmark of their rivals was largely absent, their game comparatively ponderous and predictable. Disturbingly for Houllier, there were also signs of frustration at this failure to develop from his two stellar players, Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard.

Owen, increasingly isolated after a calf injury, reduced Emile Heskey's already fitful support, eventually attempted solo slaloms every time he received the ball. Olof Mellberg's watchful concentration ensured he failed.

As well as similarly attempting to win the game single-handedly, Gerrard was also guilty of making two-footed tackles. This time he escaped punishment but, unless he rids himself of the habit, he will not always be as fortunate.

At least Gerrard, as the old joke goes, made an impression, and not just on Mellberg, for he was Liverpool's most influential outfielder. Houllier's new tyro, Harry Kewell, was largely anonymous.

While the Australian is understandably still adjusting to Liverpool's pattern, he was handicapped by being asked to play mainly on the right flank. From this unfamiliar position, he set the tone for a scrappy first half by misplacing his first three passes then missing the period's best after nine minutes.

El Hadji Diouf, who sporadically looked the player he had been in the World Cup, broke through on the left and, after his thunderous shot was parried by Thomas Sorensen, Kewell had only to tap the ball in from a dozen yards.

To the delight of the Holte End, Kewell, with his right foot, steered it well wide. "He works hard and I thought he got stronger after the hour," said Houllier. "He hasn't had a lot of training because of injury and needs time to settle."

More generally a downbeat Houllier was reduced to admitting: "At times we had some good bits. We showed character which was good as conceding a late goal last week can affect confidence."

His counterpart David O'Leary, who was given a rapturous welcome on his home debut, was much happier after Villa's busy performance dispelled memories of last week's anodyne one at Fratton Park.

It helped that he rectified one selection error, recalling Mellberg for Ozalan Alpay, and was able to field Darius Vassell. His signature fresh on a new contract linking him to the club until 2006. Vassell injected pace and drive.

This inspired Juan Pablo Angel into one of his livelier displays a 25-yard free-kick, striking the post on the hour, being the highlight. The Colombian had already been denied by Jerzy Dudek after 48 minutes as Villa began the second half with the best football of the afternoon.

Mark Delaney, beautifully put through by Angel, almost rounded Dudek only for the Pole to get a foot in. Dudek then foiled Vassell after he, too, escaped Liverpool's square defence.

Liverpool had come closest to scoring through a mix-up between Mellberg and Sorensen which ended with the Swede heading narrowly past his own post. They finally mounted a late rally but Sorensen ensured he would keep his first Premiership clean sheet since 11 January when he clawed away John Arne Riise's header.

Aston Villa (4-4-2): Sorensen 7; Delaney 5, Mellberg 7, Johnsen 6, Samuel 6; Hendrie 6 (De La Cruz, 86), McCann 6, Barry 5, Whittingham 5; Vassell 5, Angel 6 (Dublin, 88). Substitutes not used: Alpay, Hitzlsperger, Postma (gk).

Liverpool (4-4-2): Dudek 8; Carragher 4, Henchoz 5, Hyypia 5, Rise 5; Kewell 2, Murphy 4 (Biscan, 86), Gerrard 5, Diouf 5; Owen 4, Heskey 4 (Baros 3, 57). Substitutes not used: Finnan, Smicer, Kirkland (gk).

Referee: P Durkin (Portland) 5.

Booking: Liverpool: Diouf.

Man of the match: Dudek.

Attendance: 42,573.