The table doesn’t lie but it does seduce. Every football fan has gazed at it and wondered how it would look if they won their next three fixtures. As Sir Bobby Robson used to say: “If. Biggest word in football, son.”
On Friday, Brendan Rodgers had gazed mistily at the table and noted Liverpool were a mere four points off a Champions League place. If they really put their minds to it, they might finish runners-up.
It was good, positive talk but it assumed that all the teams around Liverpool would simply go into hibernation. This result, which until Steven Gerrard’s late intervention threatened to be Liverpool’s worst in the league at Anfield since the Chelsea of Jose Mourinho rolled over them in October 2005, suggested nobody is going to stand aside.
Liverpool were not just beaten, they were taken apart by Christian Benteke and Andreas Weimann, the kind of young, relatively cheap talents that Liverpool’s owners crave. Benteke, born in Kinshasha but who gained his football education in Belgium, was a dominant, sometimes irresistible figure until Aston Villa went three up and decided to ride out what proved a not especially fierce storm. When asked how he felt, Rodgers replied in a low, soft voice: “I didn’t see it coming. Confidence was high, we were playing well. It wasn’t us, not really. We were flat.”
Benteke was at £7m the most expensive of the eight signings Paul Lambert brought to Villa Park in the summer amid criticism that only one, Joe Bennett, possessed any experience of the Premier League and that amounted to 45 minutes of Middlesbrough’s final game of the season three years ago.
Lambert argued that it was this kind of hungry, lower-league footballer that had brought him such success at Norwich. “If you don’t give someone the opportunity, how are you ever going to know?” said the Aston Villa manager after a week that had seen him reach a League Cup semi-final. He, like Rodgers, is rebuilding a great club but at the moment he is closer to a trophy.
Rodgers pointed out that Liverpool gave away the ball in their own half for the first and the third goals, courtesy of Luis Suarez and Joe Cole. “For the third, Benteke keeps running through us and doesn’t finish it off until he is almost on the six yard line,” he said with a shrug.
The finishing, however, was superb. For the first goal, Brett Holman found Benteke, who was given far too much space and time, but he still shot perfectly into the bottom corner of Pepe Reina’s net.
In a florescent yellow away strip and black shorts, Aston Villa looked like Lambert’s former club, Borussia Dortmund, in the same way that Stoke’s change kit is based on Barcelona’s. But the difference was rather more difficult to detect. Villa not only looked like Dortmund they played them.
This was never better demonstrated than for the second, begun and finished by Weimann. In between, however, was a brilliant, muscular back-heel from Benteke that took out three Liverpool defenders. Liverpool came back but while you might have backed Manchester United to overturn a three-goal deficit, this is not a team that deals in miracles. They ought to have had a penalty when Ciaran Clark took a fistful of Daniel Agger’s shirt, but their only reward was Gerrard deflecting home Glen Johnson’s shot. Liverpool are still only five points off a Champions League place but the table does not seem quite so seductive.
Liverpool (4-3-2-1): Reina; Johnson, Agger, Skrtel, Downing; Leiva (Henderson, 60), Gerrard, Allen; Sterling, Shelvey (Cole, h/t); Suarez.
Aston Villa (4-3-1-2): Guzman; Lowton, Baker, Clark, Licaj; Westwood, Bannan (El Ahmadi, 86), Herd; Holman (Delph, 70); Weimann, Bentecke.
Referee: Neil Swarbrick (Preston)
Man of the match: Benteke (Aston Villa)
Match rating: 8/10