There will come a day, some time in the spring, when Aston Villa are relegated from the Premier League. When it comes, it is hard to imagine it can feel any worse than yesterday did for those who hold this once proud club dear.
Villa’s capitulation against Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool, their heaviest home loss since 1935, was so much more than an embarrassing addition to the record books; in front of a half-empty stadium, it was the sounding of a death knell for their top-flight status.
It will hardly help the toxic mood around Villa Park that defender Joleon Lescott tweeted a photo of a top-of-the-range Mercedes after the game, though he later sent out another tweet claiming it was “totally accidental” and happened while he was driving. He also apologised for “mine and the team’s lack of commitment for the 90 minutes”.
The mathematics tell us Villa can still avoid a first relegation since 1987 but as the goals flew past goalkeeper Mark Bunn they looked dead and buried already. With six different Liverpool scorers, this was a proper St Valentine’s Day massacre.
For all the excellence of the returning Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge, it is the spectacle of Villa falling apart that will linger in the memory. The club’s board raised the white flag in January when they did not allow manager Rémi Garde a penny to spend on reinforcements. Yesterday, it was the players’ turn as they produced a display described by Garde as “the worst performance I have seen”.
Villa are eight points adrift at the foot of the table and Garde, who refused to comment when asked about his future afterwards, added: “It feels like a humiliation when you concede six at home without scoring and it is very painful. I hope we’re not back to square one. It is only three points but six goals conceded is not nothing.”
Liverpool’s victory lifted them to eighth in the table and will provide an injection of self-belief beforethe Capital One Cup final on 28 February but the gracious Klopp said: “It is not a day to sing songs and that is partly out of respect for Aston Villa, a great club in a difficult situation.”
It was the first time Klopp had been able to select Sturridge, Coutinho and Roberto Firmino in a starting XI, but even he must have struggled to believe how easily the goals came. It took only 16 minutes for Villa’s defence to unravel. Sturridge got the breakthrough on his first starting appearance since 4 October.
Coutinho was the architect as he whipped over a wonderful cross and Sturridge buried his header past Bunn. Klopp described it as “an absolutely perfect goal” and praised the movement of the England striker, whose season till now has been ruined by a series of injuries to hip, knee, foot and hamstring. “When he hides on the pitch, it is really difficult for the last man to defend as he is always somewhere and you don’t know his next move.”
Lescott and Aly Cissokho had left Sturridge unmarked and Villa’s defending was no better for the second goal. After Jores Okore’s unnecessary push on Coutinho, James Milner curled over a free-kick that evaded the heads of Lescott, Okore and Mamadou Sakho and deceived the wrong-footed Bunn.
With Villa standing off, Liverpool had the space to play their football. Jordan Henderson and Sturridge might have added further goals before a half-time whistle greeted by boos from the home crowd and though Leandro Bacuna offered a glimmer of resistance on the restart with a low shot that tested Simon Mignolet, things soon got worse with Liverpool’s third goal after 58 minutes. Emre Can seized on Micah Richards’ miscontrol 40 yards out and fed Firmino, who squared the ball back to Can. When his precise low strike flew into the bottom corner, it was the cue for Villa to collapse entirely.
Divock Origi added a fourth moments after replacing Sturridge as he raced clear on to Coutinho’s angled ball behind the home defence. Nathaniel Clyne made it five as he stabbed the ball in at the second attempt after Bunn had blocked his first shot. To complete the rout, Kolo Touré was left completely unmarked at a corner to head in his first league goal in five years.
Scott Sinclair later curled a shot against the Liverpool goalframe but by this stage there were fans in the Trinity Road stand shouting abuse at Tom Fox, the Villa chief executive. The home crowd also sang Christian Benteke’s name when the Liverpool forward came on as a late substitute against his old club.
It is 10 months since the Belgian scored in Villa’s FA Cup semi-final win over Liverpool but that day at Wembley feels like 10 years ago. “I will find 11 players who want to fight for the next game,” said Garde, though yesterday’s evidence suggested he will find it hard.
One spectator yesterday was Dennis Mortimer, Villa’s 1982 European Cup-winning captain. His verdict was damning. “There is no character on the pitch,” he said. “There is no one getting hold of the team on the pitch and making them work. For me the effort is not there.” It sounded like a lament for a broken club and after an afternoon like this, who could blame him?
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