It is probably too soon for Gérard Houllier to relax, but the hounds who were baying in pursuit of the Liverpool manager are losing the scent. A month ago everyone expected him to lose his job this summer; now who knows? It will probably depend on Martin O'Neill.
Certainly Houllier's season is looking a lot brighter than it was when his team were booed off Anfield on 13 December. Liverpool's minimum requirement this May is a place in the Champions' League and that is looking attainable. Win their game in hand and they will be in fourth place, which is not bad for a team supposedly in crisis.
This victory, secured by the fortuitous rebound off Villa's Mark Delaney, means they have won three games in a week, secured 10 of their last 12 Premiership points and with matches against Tottenham, Wolves, Manchester City and Portsmouth on the horizon they have an excellent chance of renovating a season that looked to be crumbling. Even Michael Owen, missing for six weeks, made it through 72 minutes without adding to his catalogue of injuries.
"We didn't play particularly well but we scrapped for the result," Houllier said. "We needed a bit of luck in front of goal." On that, David O'Leary, the Villa manager concurred. "We had a flukey goal the other day," he said of his side's win over Portsmouth in midweek, "and we had a flukey one against us today. These things balance out."
This was not a match of flowing moves although Houllier, after suffering a period of losing ugly, was more than happy to triumph in the same unedifying manner. "After the highs of Chelsea," he said referring to Wednesday's victory at Stamford Bridge, "we feared a dip. We had to be aware of that."
An antidote to any decline is the return of Owen, who was restored to the team for the first time since 27 November, yet ironically it was the England striker who looked jaded when he missed from two feet after 12 minutes. El Hadji Diouf crossed from the right and, after Emile Heskey had won a tussle with Thomas Sorensen, Harry Kewell played the ball back in and Owen hit the bar.
The errors spread to the Liverpool defence after 25 minutes when Igor Biscan dithered by a high bouncing ball and Darius Vassell nipped in. His shot was fierce and accurate but Paul Jones, on loan from Southampton, proved his mettle with a flying save to tip the ball away from the near post.
Given the scrappy nature of these opening exchanges it was appropriate that when a goal came the scorer knew very little about it. Kewell crossed after 35 minutes and Heskey's header was probably going wide until Delaney's behind got in the way of it and flat-footed Sorensen.
Those who saw Villa's win on Tuesday would see poetic justice in Liverpool's goal but the first piece of football worthy of more elevated description came within a minute of the start of the second half when Owen turned, flicked a pass and then accelerated away to receive Diouf's one-two.
A minute later Owen was only fractions away from profiting from his speed when Diouf's cross from the right was palmed away by Sorensen and the Villa goalkeeper only just managed to pull the ball back into his control as the England striker bore down on him.
This sparked life into Diouf, often a peripheral figure in Liverpool matches, and, on his last game before joining the Senegal squad in the African Nations' Cup, he began attacking Villa on both flanks. As if this were not odd enough, Heskey embarked on the sort of swashbuckling run after 63 minutes that used to be his stock in trade at Leicester and it required an immaculate tackle from Dion Dublin to stop him.
That encouraged the visitors and the final 15 minutes was a tale of Villa dominance that led to precisely no attempts on the Liverpool goal. Indeed, if Harry Kewell had been remotely like his best the visitors would have trudged back to Birmingham with their goal difference substantially damaged. Sixth place secured briefly after Tuesday's match looks likely to be the high-water mark for them this season.
Liverpool 1 Aston Villa 0
Delaney og 36
Half-time: 1-0 Attendance: 43,771
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