Given that the man who appointed him was watching him at work for the first time, Liverpool’s evening did not go quite the way Brendan Rodgers would have planned, although he can at least reflect that it could have been worse. With John W Henry, Liverpool’s American owner, paying a rare visit to Anfield, Villa stunned the home crowd by taking a 2-0 lead before the home battled back to salvage a point.
With John W Henry, Liverpool’s American owner, paying a rare visit to Anfield – his first since hiring Rodgers in June 2012 – Villa stunned the home crowd by taking a 2-0 lead before Henry and his entourage saw their team battle back to salvage a point, helped by another controversial moment involving Luis Suarez.
Suarez won the penalty early in the second half from which Liverpool drew level, going to ground after Villa goalkeeper Brad Guzan dived at his feet and failed to claim the ball, even though TV replays showed there was no contact.
Villa will feel that anything less than a point for their efforts would have been an injustice. As it is, they are the first visitors to Anfield not to leave with no points since Southampton won there in September.
It means that Liverpool’s hold on fourth place in the Premier League table is not quite as strong as it would have been had they claimed an eighth straight win, yet with 43 points from 22 matches they are 12 better than they were at the corresponding point of last season.
Villa, whose manager Paul Lambert is as well-placed as anyone to discuss with Rodgers the merits of absentee American owners, have won only once in eight matches but showed enough spirit and quality to suggest better to come.
Indeed, so good were they in the first half that Rodgers took the bold decision to admit that his experiment of playing Steven Gerrard as his holding midfielder was not working, redeploying his captain in a more familiar attacking role for the second half. His view was that it was a point won rather than two lost.
“It was a good point,” Rodgers said. “We were nowhere near our level in the first half and you have to give Villa credit for that. Tactically we had to change things to get back in the game. Supporters expect us to win but you can’t win every game. This time we’ve been two goals down against a good side and ended up getting a point.”
Villa set out from the start to spoil any party plans that Liverpool might have had. Even before Andreas Weimann’s 25th-minute goal put them in front, they had seized the initiative impressively.
Reminded undoubtedly as they left the dressing rooms of the rude shock they delivered here last season, outplaying the home side to be three goals in front in 51 minutes, they would have been ahead within 54 seconds this time had Gabriel Agbonlahor, racing after Christian Benteke’s flick-on, not pushed his shot wide with only goalkeeper Simon Mignolet to beat.
Villa went close twice more, Mignolet fortunate to have Ashley Westwood’s shot go straight at him after a Villa attack that stemmed from Gerrard losing possession in his own half, and again when Ciaran Clark’s header from a Westwood corner hit a post and was cleared.
Liverpool’s defence was a mess, so disjointed that when the opening goal came they had three men against one when Agbonlahor, breaking down the left, aimed a low cross towards Weimann in the six-yard box but they still could not keep the ball out of the net.
Marginally, Weimann might have been offside but Villa had earned their reward, bringing an unusual hush around Anfield that lifted only when Benteke, a week after ending his goal drought, sparked more wild scenes in the corner occupied by the Villa fans when he doubled their side’s lead, nodding the ball home after Mignolet’s flailing arm denied Glen Johnson any chance of heading away another Agbonlahor cross.
Liverpool grabbed a lifeline just before half-time. Moments after Aly Cissokho, the left-back, had squandered their best chance to that point, Suarez, breaking through the middle, found Daniel Sturridge with the aid of a deft Jordan Henderson back-heel and his strike partner did the rest, smartly lifting his shot over Guzan to claim his second goal in two matches since his comeback from injury.
The second goal came early in the second half after Rodgers replaced Gerrard with Lucas Leiva in the holding role, sacrificing Philippe Coutinho and sending Gerrard back upfield, where one of his first acts was to supply the pass from which Suarez won a penalty and then convert it, driving his spot-kick into the right-hand corner, just out of reach.
In the event, Lucas had to be withdrawn after 20 minutes through injury, requiring Joe Allen to take over at the back of the middle three. By this stage, however, Liverpool had rediscovered their composure, and Villa were suffering setbacks of their own with Agbonlahor and Karim El Ahmadi going off.
Chances tended to come to the home side with Suarez and Henderson going close. In the directors’ box, Henry and his partner at least looked like they were having fun.
Liverpool (4-3-3): Mignolet; Johnson, Skrtel, Toure, Cissokho; Sterling, Gerrard, Henderson; Sturridge, Suarez. Coutinho.
Aston Villa (4-3-1-2): Guzan; Bacuna, Vlaar, Clark, Bertrand; El Ahmadi, Westwood, Delph; Weimann; Agbonlahor, Benteke.
Referee: Jon Moss (Yorkshire).
Man of the match: Gabby Agbonlahor
Match rating: 7/10
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