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Aston Villa Stun Liverpool At Anfield Thanks To Gabriel Agbonlahor

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ASTON Villa preserved their unbeaten run by inflicting a second defeat of the season on Liverpool, who will have to concentrate harder than this if they are to make progress when Champions League football returns to Anfield on Tuesday.

Villa were worth the win, which leaves them with 10 points from their first four games, even if they got lucky when Philippe Coutinho struck a post with a firm drive eight minutes from the end. The visitors never allowed the home side to settle in midfield and defended an early goal well for over an hour, with Nathan Baker giving a heroic impression of Ron Vlaar in the centre of defence.

“We showed no fear,” Paul Lambert said. “It was a fantastic performance and result. Tactically, we were spot-on, the lads have grasped what we have been working on in training. Not that they are really lads any more. Our young players have grown into men.”

Liverpool cannot say they were not warned. In this fixture last season, Villa raced to a two-goal lead before being pegged back to a 2-2 draw, they won at Anfield the season before that, and Steven Gerrard admitted beforehand that the Midlands side had a good recent record against Liverpool.

The tone for most games is set inside the first 15 or 20 minutes, according to Gerrard, who also claimed in his programme notes that his side started so well in their last outing at Spurs, establishing a solid defensive platform and going on to control the game, that the margin of victory could easily have been greater than three goals.

He would not have been able to say the same about this match. Liverpool started quite poorly, particularly in defence, and were a goal down after eight minutes. First, Mamadou Sakho allowed Gabriel Agbonlahor to claim a ball that should never have been his and was forced to concede an unnecessary corner, and a blocked Philippe Senderos header from Ashley Westwood’s cross stood up invitingly for Agbonlahor to poke into the bottom corner. Managers are never impressed when goals are conceded at set pieces and Liverpool were lucky not to give away another one four minutes later, when Senderos found space to get on the end of a Westwood free-kick but headed too high.

Villa could only be encouraged and, with Adam Lallana marking his debut with a booking for a rash challenge on Tom Cleverley and Javier Manquillo having to make a smart recovery after being surprised by Agbonlahor’s pace, there was no doubt which side had bossed the first quarter. Mario Balotelli was struggling to get into the game, though the Italian was hardly helped by the myopic officiating that allowed Senderos to get away with a clear trip after the ball had gone. Balotelli also had reason to feel aggrieved about subsequent challenges by Senderos and Alan Hutton but limited his reaction to picking himself up slowly and looking balefully at the referee.

Liverpool were missing the pace and penetration of the rested Raheem Sterling, yet that could hardly be offered as an excuse for the difficulty they were experiencing defending set pieces. Villa sensed vulnerability at every free-kick and corner and could have gone two up before the interval when Hutton glanced on a Westwood corner for Senderos’s first-time shot to clear the bar. Lallana shot narrowly wide as the interval approached and Balotelli was reasonably close with a speculative effort from the angle of the area but the home side’s clearest break of the first half came in stoppage time, when Alberto Moreno found a way behind the Villa defenders but Kieran Richardson got back in time to cut out his cross.

Brendan Rodgers watched Liverpool’s attacks being comfortably repulsed by the outstanding Baker and the rest of the visiting defence for 15 minutes of the second half before sending on Sterling, who was welcomed to the game by a scything tackle from Hutton for which the Villa full-back was rightly booked. Sterling beat Cleverley with his first chance to run at Villa with the ball at his feet, only to produce a shot that landed in the middle of the Kop.

With Villa barely crossing the halfway line in the second period and Liverpool seeing plenty of the ball, the only question for the final half-hour was how long the visitors would be able to last out. Rodgers freshened his attack with Rickie Lambert and Fabio Borini for the last 20 minutes, the former replacing the labouring Balotelli and the latter gaining an unexpected chance at the expense of Lazar Markovic, who had actually looked one of Liverpool’s more promising players going forward. None of the changes worked, with Lambert making a mess of his only decent chance.

Coutinho almost rescued a point, but Villa fully deserved the victory for their overall organisation and determined defending. “We’re going to win the league,” the fans in the Anfield Road end chorused. That might be a teeny bit premature, but second-placed Villa have made a solid start.

Liverpool are proving hit and miss. “We started too slowly and never created enough,” Rodgers said. “We couldn’t quite find the quality with the final ball. We couldn’t break Villa down, and that was frustrating.” – The Guardian

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