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Aston Villa crushed Liverpool’s hopes of a challenge for the top four of the Barclays Premier League by inflicting their worst home defeat for more than three years. Christian Benteke scored twice, either side of Andreas Weimann’s well-worked goal, before Steven Gerrard’s late consolation as the hosts’ three-match winning run was ended in surprising fashion.
It was the first time Villa had scored more than once in any half of league football this season and extended their own unbeaten run to five matches, with only a second away win in 17 away league games. Villa also almost doubled their league away goals tally for the campaign, which now stands at seven, in recording only their fifth Anfield victory in 34 visits.
Yet barely 24 hours earlier Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers had been talking about targeting second-placed Manchester City so high was the confidence in his squad.
City are now 14 points ahead and, worse still, Liverpool failed to take advantage of Everton’s draw at Stoke City to close the gap on fourth place with many of their rivals playing on Sunday. For their part Villa moved three points clear of the relegation zone.
The opening half-hour was virtually one-way traffic as the home side set off at pace in search of a third successive Barclays Premier League victory for the first time since May 2011. But their eagerness seemed to get the better of them as there was an air of over-complication and lack of finesse about their play in the final third.
Stewart Downing started at left-back for the injured Jose Enrique but enjoyed plenty of space down the flank. Gerrard bundled a shot at goalkeeper Brad Guzan after a poor pass behind him from Luis Suarez, returning after suspension, rebounded back off Raheem Sterling before Downing shot wide after cutting in on his right foot.
It continued with Joe Allen driving wide, Gerrard’s feet getting in a tangle after being picked out by Suarez’s inch-perfect crossfield ball, and Jonjo Shelvey delaying his shot long enough for Nathan Baker to block after Suarez capitalised on Chris Herd’s mistake.
Liverpool’s inability to take their chances has hurt them in the past and it proved to be the case again in the 29th minute when Brett Holman passed inside to Benteke, who took a touch and - with no-one closing him down - unleashed a low shot which beat Jose Reina off the inside of his right-hand post.
What a difference the goal made as Villa suddenly started playing 30 yards further up the field. They almost scored again when Weimann seized on Glen Johnson’s weak header to lob Reina, only for the ball to drop on to the roof of the net.
The Austrian did not make the same mistake just before half-time, however, when he converted a brilliantly-worked goal. Weimann released Benteke in the inside-right channel and raced into a gaping hole in the Liverpool defence to turn the striker’s clever backheel under Reina.
Six minutes after the interval the Reds’ half-time substitute Joe Cole was robbed by Holman on the halfway line and Benteke, who was sensibly quickly given possession, danced through the home backline to chip a shot past Reina.
Liverpool laid siege to Guzman’s goal in the final half-hour and, although they finally made a breakthrough, it proved too little too late with Gerrard heading in Johnson’s cross-shot three minutes from the end.
Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers: "We are very disappointed and to be honest I didn't see that coming as our momentum and confidence coming into the game was probably as high as it's been
"We probably got punished for our decision-making in that first 20 minutes, we were a bit careless. We could easily have been 3-0 up in the game and if we do that we can control it much better but we didn't have that final pass and bit of quality at the top end of the field.
"Then we went on to concede some poor goals. We weren't quite at it today with our intensity and pressure in the game and they were a threat on the counter-attack and got the goals.
“I thought we were flat. It was important for us to get the first goal - with them playing 3-5-2 - to open up the game but we had those chances early on and didn't take them. Once that happens, combined with sloppy play and giving the ball away in poor areas, we contrived to concede bad goals.
"Benteke was outstanding today but he got his shot in too easy for the first. The second goal we never tracked the runners into the box and then the third goal we've given it away in our half and he's broken through and nearly runs to the edge of the six-yard box before finishing.
"It was so unlike us because we're usually strong defensively. It was very much self-inflicted today. It was surprising because we haven't shown that in the last few months. As soon as the third goal went in we looked deflated and then Villa have no need to come out and go after the game and they just sat. For us it was a bad day at the office."
Aston Villa manager Paul Lambert: "We were outstanding again. We are playing really, really well at the moment. We were fantastic. We looked a threat with Christian [Benteke] and Andreas [Weimann] up front and we deserved to win the game. The back three lads are just getting better and better. Look at the age of them. Collectively we were outstanding. The back three lads were absolutely brilliant.
"The group deserve every bit of credit that's coming their way. They have been absolutely brilliant since I have been at the club. We have been fantastic. I can't speak highly enough of them. They have given it everything they have got. Hopefully now we can continue to climb this table.
"Also it was thoroughly deserved. The goals were outstanding - especially the second goal which was world-class move and the finish was excellent. The lads have been unfairly criticised - they are too young, they won't stay up, that sort of thing. But at the end of the day, there's a long, long way to go. I have the belief that these lads will go out and perform.
"Their energy is second-to-none, they give it a right good go but they are also a threat. I know what I see every single day. The lads have been great. I knew what I was getting. I just needed a bit of time for them to get adjusted. They have been absolutely brilliant for me."
|22 Dec 2012||v Fulham (H)|
|26 Dec 2012||v Stoke (A)|
|30 Dec 2012||v QPR (A)|
|02 Jan 2013||v Sunderland (H)|
|13 Jan 2013||v Man Utd (A)|
|19 Jan 2013||v Norwich (H)|