Villa to offer true test of misfiring Reds' mettle

Liverpool 2 Wolves 0
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The Independent Football

They will struggle to recreate the free-flowing football of the final weeks of last season's near-miss but Liverpool have no better chance to gather the kind of momentum that took them so close to the title.

The injuries and loss of form of key men have contributed to Liverpool's failure to pick up consecutive victories in the Premier League since September but Rafael Benitez's bold assertion that his team will finish in the top four will be severely tested in their next two league games, against Aston Villa and Tottenham.

Over-statement comes easily but an eighth Premier League defeat for the season, at Villa Park tomorrow, would be a significant blow, even if victory over Wolves offered something for Benitez to build on.

With Fernando Torres doing everyone a favour just by continuing to play through his groin trouble, Steven Gerrard doggedly fighting his way back to form, Alberto Aquilani still finding his feet in England and no money to spend next month, fulfilling Benitez's ambition will be all about will and grit and will have to be earned the hard way.

A key part of management is controlling expectations and Benitez has to accept that even finishing fourth will be seen as a poor campaign, while Martin O'Neill's side's upward curve encourages positivity.

"We know Aston Villa are in a very good position," Benitez said. "They have belief and confidence, but we must try to win and reduce the gap. If we can't, we still know we have to keep going because it is a long race.

"We have confidence and we have to do it because we are a top side. We have been top four for the last few years and it has to be our target now. I said that because I believe it but we have to start winning games in a row. It was very clear we had to win against Wolves and then do something against Villa. If we had lost against Wolves and then won the next game, it wouldn't have changed anything for us. We have been good second half in past seasons and we will have to be confident."

Their victory over Wolves was based on a similar belief that "it will come", as well as Stephen Ward's red card at the start of the second half. The full-back had been cautioned for pulling Yossi Benayoun's shirt moments before tripping Lucas and although referee Andre Marriner mistakenly showed Christophe Berra a yellow card, he realised his mistake and sent Ward off.

Liverpool took advantage when Gerrard forced his head on to Emiliano Insua's cross to open the scoring, before Benayoun's shot deflected off Karl Henry to secure the points.

Wolves are a couple of points above the bottom three at the mid-point in their season and their manager Mick McCarthy said: "If you had offered me 19 points at halfway we would have taken it and the way we have played, especially recently, I think sends out the right message to everyone."

Liverpool (4-2-3-1): Reina; Johnson, Carragher, Agger, Insua; Lucas, Aquilani (Pacheco, 85); Benayoun (Spearing, 89), Gerrard, Aurelio (Kuyt, 76); Torres. Substitutes not used: Cavaileri (gk), Ngog, Darby, Skrtel.

Wolves (4-4-2): Hahnemann; Stearman, Craddock, Berra, Ward; Foley, Henry, Milijas (Mancienne, 63), Jarvis; Doyle (Elokobi, 58), Ebanks-Blake (Iwelumo, 67). Substitutes not used: Hennessey (gk), Surman, Maierhofer, Castillo.

Referee: A Marriner (Birmingham).

Booked: Wolves Ward.

Sent off: Ward (53).

Man of the match: Hahnemann.

Attendance: 41, 956.