Liverpool vs Aston Villa match report: Mario Balotelli’s Anfield misery shows no end

Liverpool 0 Aston Villa 1: Agbonlahor strikes early as Villa secure victory at the home of Liverpool for the second time in three seasons as Balotelli’s search for a goal at home ground goes on

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There was one problem with Mario Balotelli’s choice of Liverpool as the club to rebuild his career. He had never done particularly well at Anfield.

In his games here for Manchester City, Balotelli had never scored or finished on the winning side and this was not a record he improved upon yesterday. It was not quite as bad as the occasion on which he was sent off 18 minutes after coming on as a substitute for City but he was fairly ruthlessly targeted and did not finish the match.

Aston Villa finished it second in the Premier League, jostling for space with those other unlikely lads, Swansea and Southampton. Perhaps Villa manager Paul Lambert’s ideals are only now beginning to gel, perhaps it was the presence of the bearded Roy Keane, prowling the touchline like a tracksuited Grizzly Adams, but Villa looked a team who knew precisely what they needed to do.

Only in the latter stages of the evening, when Philippe Coutinho struck the post in front of the Kop, did it seem likely Villa’s early goal would be overturned. Even though Tuesday night’s opponents in the Champions League, Ludogorets, are down to their third-choice goalkeeper, it was not the best preparation for Liverpool’s emotional return to Europe’s elite competition. And for a club that still dreams of the domestic title, this was their second defeat in four games.

 

In Lambert’s first two seasons in the second city, Villa became the Premier League’s great irrelevance; not quite inept enough to be relegated, not quite good enough to have even a passing say when it came to Europa League places being handed out.

Something, however, happens to them at Anfield. Two seasons ago they beat Liverpool decisively. In January they were two up before Daniel Sturridge and Steven Gerrard salvaged a point.

Once more Aston Villa began superbly on Merseyside. They were quick, incisive and by the time the evening was 10 minutes old, they were in front. Ashley Westwood’s corner was headed against Javier Manquillo by Philippe Senderos and, as the ball bobbled around the area, Gabriel Agbonlahor scooped it home as he fell backwards.

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Aston Villa celebrate Gabrial Agbonlahor's goal

In the run-up to this game there had been plenty of focus on Liverpool’s forward line, with Sturridge injured and Raheem Sterling withdrawn to give the teenager the protection his club manager, Brendan Rodgers, believes he needs if he is not to find himself, like Michael Owen, burned out by his mid-20s. He was on, however, with the game barely an hour old and was promptly scythed down by Alan Hutton.

Nevertheless, Liverpool’s back four seemed to offer greater cause for Rodgers’ concern. They were shaky and indecisive. Commentating from the stands, Jimmy Case, one of Anfield’s immortals, thought the way Mamadou Sakho allowed the ball to go out for the corner that led to Villa taking the leas was “incompetent”. When Senderos was allowed a free header from a free-kick, the stadium seethed with anxiety.

Under Rodgers, Liverpool’s forward play has been sharp, direct and usually lethal. Here the build-up play was almost ponderous and Villa had so little bother in keeping it at bay in the first hour that there was no need for the off-the-ball kick that Senderos dished out on Balotelli. Mostly the Italian was seldom a threat.

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Balotelli's first outing at Anfield in red ended in defeat

The closest Liverpool came to a breakthrough in that first hour was a header from Lazar Markovic that whistled past Brad Guzan’s post and a dipping drive from Balotelli that was wide by a couple of yards.

Adam Lallana’s first contribution on his Liverpool debut was to get himself booked for a foul on another beginning a new phase of his career, Tom Cleverley. Lallana (left) did little else before finding himself substituted. Having waited so long for his first game for Liverpool, the midfielder would have imagined it many times, though seldom like this.

Line-ups:

Liverpool (4-3-2-1): Mignolet; Manquillo, Lovren, Sakho, Moreno; Gerrard, Henderson, Coutinho; Markovic (Borini 71), Lallana (Sterling 61); Balotelli (Lambert 71).

Aston Villa (4-3-1-2): Guzan; Hutton, Senderos, Baker, Cissokho; Cleverley, Westwood, Delph; Richardson; Weimann (N’Zogbia 72), Agbonlahor (Bent 90).

Referee: Lee Mason.

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