This season Aston Villa have been mainly playing in binary numbers. Their previous seven results read: 0-1, 1-0, 0-0, 0-0, 0-1, 1-1, 0-1. Apart from a laborious FA Cup tie against Blackpool and a draw against Manchester United, the nils have belonged to them. This was different, this time they conceded twice.
When Rickie Lambert drilled his shot into the corner of Brad Guzan’s net, Paul Lambert stood on the touchline staring into the deepest nothingness. When, more than a decade ago, Graham Taylor stood down as manager here, he said he was resigning “because Aston Villa is more than about finishing 16th.”
In his first two seasons at Villa Park, this is where Lambert has taken them. They are 14th this morning with the potential to fall further still. Managers struggling for their lives are often finished off by some unlikely executioners. Lambert and Fabio Borini, the two Liverpool strikers who settled this match, had previously managed one Premier League goal between them.
When Martin Skrtel’s header seemed to be heading for the corner of the net, Borini had swung at cold, thin air and Guzan had somehow tipped it on to the post. Villa actually played pretty well in the second half and when Simon Mignolet, who was relentlessly pounded with crosses, saved from Christian Benteke and Nathan Baker, Paul Lambert sank to his knees overwhelmed by frustration.
He was not the only one. It is eight hours and 42 minutes – roughly the running time of the Lord of the Rings trilogy – since Aston Villa last scored in the Premier League and their next two League fixtures pitch them against Arsenal and Chelsea.
It is this crippling lack of entertainment that sparked the attempt to boycott the first eight minutes of the game – one for each year of Randy Lerner’s ownership. As for judging the protest’s effectiveness, it was rather like Dorothy Parker’s comment when the author was informed of the death of America’s notoriously taciturn president, Calvin Coolidge. “How,” she asked “can they tell?”
The idea had been for the ticket-holders of the Holte End, on which is a banner proclaiming itself to be Villa’s “Twelfth Man”, to stay away for the opening exchanges. All you could say was at kick-off, the Holte End, which was not sold out for the game, was pretty full. After nine minutes it became marginally fuller. Nine minutes before the final whistle it was emptying fast.
Despite the jeers, despite the chronic lack of goals, despite the prospect of a slow crawl away from the relegation zone, there appears to be no great appetite for getting rid of Lambert.
“That is the way it has been for the last three, four, five years,” he said when asked why Aston Villa were once more mired in the bottom half of the table. “There is no respite from it and the only response is to meet it head on. A club like this should not be in this position. I don’t like it, the chairman doesn’t like it, the chief executive doesn’t like it, the fans don’t like it and the players don’t like it.”
A little more than a month ago, Brendan Rodgers was facing the kind of pressure that is wearing down the man in the opposite dug-out. Liverpool had been beaten badly by Manchester United, were hopelessly off the pace domestically, out of the Champions League and every other question was about Mario Balotelli.
Since that defeat at Old Trafford, Liverpool have not lost, largely because of the radical 3-4-3 formation that the Liverpool manager who admits to pacing the floor of his kitchen rolling tactics around his head, adopted.
They might have had more than the one goal before the interval, although it was beautifully finished by Borini after Jordan Henderson, captaining for the injured Steven Gerrard, had scooped the ball into the Italian’s path.
Then Raheem Sterling, back from his winter break in Jamaica, found himself clear on goal. The week in Kingston may have recharged his energies but it has not cured Sterling’s clearest weakness as a forward – an inability to finish when the contest is between himself and a goalkeeper. The Holte End would recognise the symptoms.
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Guzan; Hutton, Okore, Baker, Sissoko; Cleverley (Weimann, 59), Sanchez, Westwood (Gil, 59), Delph; Agbonlahor, Benteke.
Liverpool (3-4-3): Mignolet; Skrtel, Can, Sakho; Markovic, Henderson, Lucas Leiva, Moreno (Jose Enrique, 71); Sterling (Ibe, 85), Borini (Lambert, 71), Coutinho.
Referee: Mark Clattenburg
Man of the match: Henderson (Liverpool)
Match rating: 6/10
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