Lucas gift sparks Liverpool implosion

Liverpool 1 Aston Villa 3

One early season defeat is careless, two and it starts to feel like a crisis. Rafael Benitez's regime is well-accustomed to lurching from triumph to disaster and back again but last night's defeat had a gloomy, ominous quality that hinted at problems that run far deeper.

Not since Carlos Tevez scored the only goal in a defeat to Manchester United on 16 December 2007 have Liverpool lost at Anfield in the league and since then they have run United closer than ever in the title race. Last year this formidable Liverpool team only lost two games all season in the league, within three games of the new season they have already reached that mark.

You could pin the blame on the hapless Lucas Leiva who headed in Aston Villa's first goal having conceded the free-kick that led to it in the first place. You could look at the weakness of the Liverpool bench from where Andrey Voronin and Ryan Babel were summoned to win the game to precious little effect. But why blame the foot soldiers when the generals were all over the place too?

It was Steven Gerrard's ludicrous tackle on Nigel Reo-Coker that conceded the penalty from which Ashley Young scored Villa's third and decided the game. Fernando Torres scored Liverpool's only goal but this season they will need so much more from him. With his black eye, streaky blond hair and constantly scowling demeanour Torres looked like a latter-day Paul Calf, railing against all the injustices of the world.

There is no scope to take your time in the modern title race, not when it starts at such a blistering pace in August and keeps it up for the next eight months. Benitez insists that this Liverpool team are capable of everything they did last season and more but the evidence last night suggested otherwise. They look like a side who reached their best last term and are in desperate need of rejuvenation.

Benitez has been written off before, and goodness knows the man could do with a bit more leverage in the transfer market, but for all the pressure they applied on Villa this was a dismal effort. Lucas is a paltry replacement for Xabi Alonso and everyone in Anfield knows it. If Torres's tricky Achilles gives way then the prospects are unthinkable.

But this was not just the story of Benitez's season taking a dangerous turn it was one of sweet redemption for Martin O'Neill. That he figures prominently in Benitez's black book of Premier League managers will make it satisfying, but for once O'Neill's bête noire was not the Spaniard in the neighbouring dugout but his own fans.

It was telling that he first refused to acknowledge the Villa support when they asked him for a wave early in the second half and only did so towards the end of the match. The booing that his team endured at half-time of the defeat to Wigan on the opening day still played heavily on his mind even after the match. He does not look like a man who is going to forget that in a hurry.

Fabio Capello was in the stand but there was no Emile Heskey to watch, he has become a luxury that O'Neill could no longer afford as he returned to the 4-5-1 system with Gabriel Agbonlahor on his own up front. This time O'Neill's team needed to be solid and they rode their luck in the early stages but then Villa have had precious little good fortune of late.

Brad Friedel was brilliant for Villa. He made an improbable save from Gerrard in a ninth-minute scramble which seemed destined for the Villa net as the pressure grew in the early stages. But they saw it out and Liverpool conceded a dreadful goal on 34 minutes. Lucas gave away a free-kick with a shove on Stilian Petrov 40 yards out. Young curled in the free-kick and, under no pressure, Lucas headed past his own goalkeeper.

The second goal was a disputed Villa corner, referee Martin Atkinson deciding that Steven Sidwell's cross had flicked off Martin Skrtel. Pepe Reina was so angry about the decision he kicked the ball away and was booked. Nicky Shorey drove the ball into the near post and Curtis Davies got ahead of Jamie Carragher to flick the ball past Reina.

Benitez complained bitterly at the end of the second half that Villa had scored in an unwarranted second minute of added time and Liverpool came back out with more purpose.

Torres finally broke through on 72 minutes. It was a simple move in which Voronin played in Emiliano Insua who crossed for an unmarked Torres to score. From there, you expected the torrent to engulf Villa but there was a sting in the tail.

The third Villa goal was made by Reo-Coker, arguably Villa's best player after Friedel. He ran onto a Shorey pass and was crudely brought down by Gerrard in manic all-action mode. Young swept home the penalty and the mood turned very sour. There was no coming back and already the season at Anfield looked bleak.

Liverpool (4-2-3-1): Reina; Johnson, Carragher, Skrtel, Insua; Lucas (Voronin, 66), Mascherano; Kuyt, Gerrard, Benayoun (Babel, 75); Torres. Substitutes not used: Cavalieri (gk), Riera, Kelly, Dossena, Ayala.

Aston Villa (4-5-1): Friedel; Beye, Cuellar, Davies, Shorey; Milner, Reo-Coker, Petrov, Sidwell, A Young (Heskey, 80); Agbonlahor. Substitutes not used: Albrighton, Delfouneso, Delph, Guzan (gk), Gardner, Lowry.

Referee: M Atkinson (Yorkshire).

Booked: Liverpool Reina, Torres, Skrtel; Aston Villa A Young, Reo-Coker

Man of the match: Friedel

Attendance: 43,667

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