Liverpool 2 Aston Villa 2: Villa plunder a point as rebellion ferments in the Anfield stands

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The Independent Football

They came to make their point, not to watch two more being wasted. It was the night when the American owners were supposed to be given the strongest indication yet of the depth of anger in the Liverpool fan base, but instead they were only given more grist to their mill that everything is not as it should be with Rafael Benitez's Reds.

After dominating for an hour and taking a fully deserved lead, Liverpool bizarrely capitulated and watched Aston Villa, one of their rivals for the final Champions' League berth, score twice and wrest the initiative. But for Peter Crouch they would have held on to it, too. The lanky striker came off the bench to level with just two minutes remaining. A defeat would have been too much for Anfield to bear. Particularly in this of all weeks.

As it was, the draw, their fourth in a row in the Premier League, was not enough to hoist them above Everton into fourth. They now lie 14 points behind Manchester United and Arsenal and, normally, that fact alone would be enough to cause Liverpool unrest. But for now they have weightier matters over which to lose slumber.

Merseyside is waiting to see what happens next in a saga that is tawdry even by football's standards and even the sight of their beloved blue neighbours above them in the League table will not quench the outpouring of warmth towards the manager who won the European Cup three years ago, yet suffered the ignominy of his job being offered to Jürgen Klinsmann a few weeks ago.

In truth, the "planned protest" did not amount to an awful great deal; at least not until the game got under way and the Kop – as one, naturally – launched into a series of well-orchestrated chants of a decidedly un-star-spangled nature. The words "you lying bastards" featured most prominently. Then there were the banners. One read "You messed up Vietnam, you messed up Iraq, don't mess up the Scousers by giving Rafa the sack", while another screamed "One DIC is better than two"". Well, what would one expect in the European City of Culture?

All in all, the atmosphere afforded the opening a rather surreal feel, especially for such a vital match.

Inevitably, as the acrimony spewed forth from all around, the action took a little while to get going. For their part, Villa, chasing their fourth win on the bounce, seemed the more distracted of the two, resembling a happy drunk who had just left the party only to find himself involved in a local skirmish in which he really did not want to get involved.

Indeed, Yossi Benayoun's deadlock-breaker in the 19th minute owed as much to Villa's startled rabbit act as to Liverpool's attacking magnificence. Even so, the interchange between Steven Gerrard and Dirk Kuyt to set up the Israeli in the six-yard box was cute enough to defy the keenest defence. It set the tone for the first half, presumably for the match.

But Villa and their belligerent manager had other ideas. After withstanding a barrage that almost saw Fernando Torres notch one of his spectaculars and Kuyt, Arvalo Arbeloa and Harry Kewell all spurn chances, Martin O'Neill, the Villa manager, saw his chance.

It was his introduction of Marlon Harewood in the 66th minute which effected the tide change. Immediately the rarely used striker ran at the Liverpool defence from deep and within three minutes had scored the equaliser. Martin Laursen has made a name for himself at Villa Park this season for scoring at opportune moments, but this time the central defender turned timely provider when heading it on for Harewood to apply the necessaries with his back towards goal. Anfield was silenced and a few minutes later was shellshocked.

It was the arm of Fabio Aurelio which got the decisive deflection on Olof Mellberg's shot and as the ball looped over Jose Reina time seemed to stand still. So, too, did Liverpool, who could barely raise themselves to launch the fightback they never believed would be needed.

They somehow managed to, however, and this time it was Benitez's replacement who made the impact. Crouch hooked Jamie Carragher's fortunate touch past Stuart Taylor and the relief was everywhere.

It made a change from all that fury.

Goals: Benayoun (19) 1-0; Harewood (69) 1-1; Aurelio og (72) 1-2; Crouch (88) 2-2.

Liverpool (4-4-2): Reina; Arbeloa (Skrtel, 70), Carragher, Hyypia, Aurelio; Benayoun (Crouch, 80), Mascherano, Gerrard, Kewell (Babel, 74); Kuyt, Torres. Substitutes not used: Itandje (gk), Alonso.

Aston Villa (4-4-2): Taylor; Mellberg, Laursen, Davies, Bouma; Gardner (Harewood, 66), Petrov, Reo-Coker, Young; Carew (Knight, 90), Agbonlahor. Substitutes not used: Sorensen (gk), Osbourne, Cahill.

Referee: M Clattenburg (Tyne & Wear).

Booked: Liverpool Arbeloa, Mascherano; Aston Villa Laursen.

Man of the match: Gerrard.

Attendance: 42,590.