Houllier forced to endure night of misery on Anfield return

Liverpool 3 Aston Villa 0
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The Independent Football

Gerard Houllier made his first competitive return to Anfield in six years last night and after watching his side crushed in the icy air the Frenchman would be forgiven for wishing for a similarly lengthy gap before his next visit.

Yet as chilling as it was for Villa and their manager these were 90 minutes of rich promise for Liverpool when necessity truly did prove the mother of invention. Fernando Torres was called away for the birth of his second child, but in his place Ryan Babel flourished and, just as importantly, so did his partnership with David Ngog. Both scored and Babel, in particular, has rarely looked so content in a red shirt.

For Roy Hodgson the duo's performance, and the displays of other less heralded squad members, was certainly the most pleasing aspect of a fourth successive home win in the league which hauled them up to eighth. The last-minute defeat at Tottenham the previous weekend might well have hurt but they have seemingly carried away the positives and built on them.

"It was important to get a result on the back of that," said Hodgson. "What made it more satisfying what so many players stepped up to the plate in the absence of our three recognised stars."

In contrast, Villa, if only for the moment, appear rooted in the bottom half as their run worsens to one win in eight. In truth, this was not the rousing homecoming Houllier would perhaps have expected. In six seasons on Merseyside he won five trophies, four in one season, before making way in 2004. The applause was respectful but nothing more, but at least Anfield sang his name at the end and gave him more than Villa.

"We're not the most confident team at the moment," said Houllier. "We need to address a few problems." That was masterly understatement. Goodness knows the mess a firing Torres could have wreaked.

The Spaniard was granted compassionate leave when his wife, Olalla, went into labour. As Houllier noted, this meant Liverpool were apparently lacking a talisman with Steven Gerrard still carrying that hamstring injury picked up on England duty and with Jamie Carragher facing three months on the sidelines courtesy of the shoulder dislocated against Spurs.

But then, Villa also had their absentees, most notably for this evening the suspended Ashley Young. Yet it was not an attacking threat they lacked; it was any sort of defensive cohesion.

Dirk Kuyt should have opened the scoring as early as the third minute when a Raul Meireles free-kick from the right caused havoc in the area. No matter, it proved no blip as another Meireles free-kick had them flapping again before a corner from the Portuguese broke this weakest of deadlocks. Martin Skrtel cleverly headed the ball back across the box where Ngog produced a flying header past Brad Friedel.

Two minutes later it was Babel daring to pose the question "Fernando Who?". This was a classic finish by the oft-berated Dutchman as he ran on to Lucas's deft dink over to locate the inside of the far post. Ten minutes the chance fell to the replacement centre-half Soto Kyrgiakos to make it "Jamie Who?" but he skewed a free-header. Again, it was a Meireles set-piece which produced the panic; not quite how Anfield remembered a Houllier defence.

Villa were desperate for another outlet and after the break Houllier offered Gabriel Agbonlahor some support up front by bringing on Nathan Delfouneso. The move almost paid quick dividends when Stewart Downing teed up Agbonlahor in the 54th minute. But Pepe Reina was alive to the threat and moments later the importance of his reflex stop was amplified after he rolled the ball out to Maxi Rodriguez.

The Argentine continued his upturn in form with his third goal in seven matches. It was a beautifully simple counter-attack with Rodriguez picking up Reina's invitation, feeding to Ngog and, 40 metres later, timing his run to perfection to side-foot home.

And so any hopes of a Villa comeback on Houllier's comeback were extinguished. Reina was ultimately to be rewarded for his fine save with his 100th clean sheet in 198 games (a record for Liverpool). At the other end, Friedel had no such concerns.

The American had to be at his sharpest to deny Glen Johnson and from there the home surges came quickly and often. Johnson blazed over, Kuyt fired wide and Kyrgiakos hit the post. There should really have been a fourth. But Liverpool would not have begrudged their old manager at least a measure of mercy.

Liverpool (4-4-2): Reina; Johnson, Kyrgiakos (Kelly, 84), Skrtel, Konchesky; Kuyt (Cole, 79), Meireles, Lucas, Rodriguez (Aurelio, 76); Babel, Ngog. Substitutes not used Jones (gk), Jovanovic, Poulsen, Shelvey. Aston Villa (4-5-1): Friedel; L Young, Dunne, Collins, Warnock; Albrighton (Pires, 65), Clark (Delfouneso, h-t), Hogg, Ireland, Downing; Agbonlahor (Carew, 66). Substitutes not used Guzan (gk), Cuellar, Lichaj, Herd. Booked: Aston Villa ClarkReferee P Dowd (Staffordshire).Possession Liverpool 50% Aston Villa 50%Shots on target Liverpool 7 Aston Villa 2 Man of the match Meireles.Attendance 39,079.Match rating 6/10.