Forget Wayne Rooney. The player who can win the World Cup for England is Steven Gerrard, according to the Liverpool manager, Rafa Benitez, who believes the marathon season undergone by his dynamic captain has turned him into "the complete player".
Gerrard, determined to keep Liverpool in with a chance of second place after Manchester United's defeat at Chelsea, won this match by himself, racing around the pitch with such a spring in his step it was hard to believe it was his 51st appearance in a campaign that began last July. The two goals he scored after Villa's Gareth Barry had deservedly levelled Fernando Morientes' early hit for the home side took his tally for the season to 21.
The goals - one delivered from six yards, the other from nearing 30 - were an expression of the wonderful range of Gerrard's football. But he could always strike a ball well. What makes him a better player now - and might make him England's trump card, Benitez says, should it not be Rooney - is what has happened inside his head.
"I think he is thinking about the game more now," Benitez said. "He was always playing with the head but now he uses the brain. When you are 28 or 30, it is something that happens naturally but if you start thinking that way before you get to that age, it is really good for you." Gerrard will be 25 when the finals begin.
The Liverpool manager feels Gerrard has the potential to be the major influence in Germany - provided his talents are not restricted by the role he is given. "He can play in a holding role," Benitez said. "But he likes to go forward. He can shoot from out of the box, he can get into the box and he can score from corners as we saw today, which is not usual for him. He has pace, he has power, he is good with the ball, good without it. He is a complete player. He has everything you need to win games, to win trophies, maybe to win the World Cup."
Rooneyless United enter the last week of the Premiership level on points with Liverpool, although with a better goal difference and home games against Middlesbrough tonight followed by Charlton on Sunday make them favourites to stay in front. Liverpool finish at Portsmouth.
Villa, like Portsmouth, have evaded the drop, an achievement the Villa manager, David O'Leary, recognises as reaching a target but accepts as falling well short of expectations, despite continuing uncertainty over the club's future ownership. The chairman Doug Ellis' latest attempt to find a buyer has stalled, promising to extend the financial shackles under which O'Leary has had to work into the summer and possibly beyond.
"It became a matter of getting across the line to safety," he said. "But it has not been a successful season. Everybody has higher standards than this." Despite a survey conducted by the club that showed two thirds of season ticket holders will not renew if he remains in charge, O'Leary is confident he will still be manager at the start of next season, while taking a more pragmatic long-term view.
"Within football, people know the job I am doing and the circumstances," he said. "But it is not about what happens to [me]. The most important thing is the future of this club. If somebody comes in and wants to change things, they are entitled to. That's life."
Goals: Morientes (4) 1-0; Barry (58) 1-1; Gerrard (61) 2-1; Gerrard (66) 3-1.
Liverpool (4-3-3): Reina; Kromkamp, Hyypia, Carragher, Traoré; Alonso, Gerrard, Riise (Warnock, 74); Cissé (Sissoko, 65), Crouch (Fowler, 62), Morientes. Substitutes not used: Dudek (gk), Agger.
Aston Villa (4-5-1): Sorensen; Hughes, Mellberg, Cahill, Bouma; Milner, Davis (Gardner, 86), McCann, Barry (Phillips, 82), Agbonlahor; Baros (Angel, 45). Substitutes not used: Taylor (gk), Ridgewell.
Referee: M Halsey (Lancashire).
Man of the match: Gerrard.
Attendance: 44,479.Reuse content