Liverpool 3 Aston Villa 1: Benitez conjures team spirit by ringing changes

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The Independent Football

Talk about paradox and enigma and any sweet mystery of football you care to mention, but the reality was as immutable as The Liver Birds. Rafa Benitez's best Premiership day of the season was both a triumph and another stick with which to beat him. Unbeaten Villa were dissected by a team which, above all, announced an easy familiarity with each other's intentions. It was also, give or take a Craig Bellamy operating at somewhere around his most effective and Luis Garcia on the form he showed here, almost certainly Liverpool's strongest possible side.

Yet however much you admired this performance - Villa's Martin O'Neill said that it had simply overawed a team that had recently come away unbowed from the Emirates Stadium and Stamford Bridge - you couldn't really shake off the rotation controversy in which Benitez is now so firmly embedded.

He made a wry post-match joke of it. "Next game? Sorry, more rotation." But will the joke be forgotten the next time Liverpool, who thanks to the manager have a squad infinitely stronger than the one he inherited two years ago, resemble strangers at a hastily arranged party? That was their effect at Old Trafford the previous Sunday, as it was on the opening day of the season when Sheffield United considered themselves unlucky not to get more than a point and Liverpool's status as Chelsea's likeliest challengers came into immediate question.

On Saturday the Kop pointedly made clear their continued support for the man who in two seasons had delivered Europe's greatest prize and the FA Cup, and what followed on the field gave the anonymous director who had so viciously attacked the whole foundation of Benitez's position plenty of reasons to squirm, not least in anticipation of the question about the silence he kept when Gérard Houllier, at vast expense and after five years, was inducing an Anfield coma with what could only be described as zombie football.

At best, this has to be put in the selective loyalty category, but then show us a boardroom untouched by such an ingredient and we'll get on with a rare celebration. Yet if the boardroom treachery was wretched in almost every aspect, it did raise legitimately the one fundamental doubt against Benitez's generally brilliant work. Has his belief in change for its own sake indeed sabotaged his best chance so far of an adding an English title, which will always be the core of Anfield ambition, to the two he won in Spain?

In the aftermath of an effort which contained a high level of quality, Benitez was, maybe not surprisingly, as implacable as ever. He said: "I could see Stevie [Gerrard] was happier. Why? Because the team were playing well. When the side does well, the players who like playing football enjoy themselves more. Maybe that was one of his better performances for a while, but probably because the team were playing better. When you talk about the new players, if Steven Gerrard, Xabi Alonso, Sami Hyypia and Pepe Reina play well, I'm sure [Jermaine] Pennant and Bellamy and the rest will do the same."

But maybe not to order. Maybe in the grooving work which is best done in the heat of serious action. Certainly this Liverpool side undermined Villa in 13 dramatic minutes before half-time in a way that suggested they had been knocking around with each other for quite some time. Of course they had; only the recent signing Dirk Kuyt had reason not to have a subtle understanding of his team-mates' instincts on and off the ball, and his sharply intelligent performance confirmed earlier impressions that he is a fast and perceptive learner.

His father, recovering from a major cancer operation, was left in a fine humour after his boy opened the scoring after 31 minutes with a low and unstoppable strike after Hyypia, dallying after a free-kick, put a high but precisely conceived ball from Jamie Carragher to his feet.

Peter Crouch and Garcia, a revelation of biting instinct and almost stunning ball retention this day, scored goals which were also the result of swift and coherent build-ups.

For some, the conclusion was inescapable. There were no chance and speculation in this Liverpool performance. The tempo was quick and easy. Alonso looked again like one of the finest playmakers around. A hesitant, peripheral figure at Old Trafford who, like Gerrard, was terribly exposed by the natural fluency and vitality of Paul Scholes, here Alonso was the source of so much of his team's best work. There was a boldness, and a moral courage, to his game that seemed to have drained away alarmingly for most of this season. The response of Gerrard and Momo Sissoko was rarely less than hard and relevant.

Inevitably, Villa's previous impregnability was broken. O'Neill's reaction was to withdraw Juan Pablo Angel and Milan Baros and move the thrusting Gabriel Agbonlahor alongside the veteran Chris Sutton. It didn't save the game so much as remind us why it might be that Villa happened to be the last team in England to lose their unbeaten record. Agbonlahor scored a splendid goal and Reina was required to produce the save of the match from a Sutton header.

"Liverpool played very well today and they are where we are aspiring to be," O'Neill said. How he chooses to get there will, of course, be answered in the fullness of time.

Meanwhile, we can only continue to rub our eyes at the maziness of Rafa's route. He insists he knows what he is doing and that he will go his own way. Saturday, as no doubt one cowering director would confirm, was maybe not the time to throw up a roadblock and challenge his credentials.

Goals: Kuyt (31) 1-0; Crouch (38) 2-0; Garcia (44) 3-0; Agbonlahor (56) 3-1.

Liverpool (4-4-2) Reina; Finnan, Hyypia, Carragher, Riise; Gerrard (Fowler, 81), Alonso, Sissoko, Garcia (Zender, 77); Kuyt, Crouch (Pennant, 75). Substitutes not used: Martin (gk), Agger.

Aston Villa (4-4-2): Sorensen; Hughes, Mellberg, Ridgewell, Bouma; Agbonlahor, Osbourne (Davis, 74), Petrov, Barry; Angel (Sutton, 46), Baros (Agathe, 46). Substitutes not used: Taylor (gk), Laursen.

Referee: S Bennett (Kent).

Booked: Aston Villa Mellberg.

Man of the match: Alonso.

Attendance: 44, 117.

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