Reds afford returning Houllier warm welcome but little more

Liverpool 3-0 Aston Villa
Monday, 6th December, 2010

Roy Hodgson may be some way off receiving a similar level of affection to that afforded by the Kop to the returning Gerard Houllier. Yet the current Liverpool manager demonstrated that his current team remain a dominant force on their own turf and superior to the Frenchman’s recently acquired charges.

Houllier was returning to the Anfield dug out for the first time as an opposing manager since leaving the club in the summer of 2004. And the home fans greeted their former boss – as well as his assistant, Gary McAllister – fondly. A banner was unfurled during the rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and both names emanated from the Kop in the closing stages.

But the Reds offered little more to warm the hearts of the returning duo, on a sub-zero evening in L4. First half goals from David N’Gog and Ryan Babel, plus a well-worked second half moved – finished by Maxi Rodriguez, completing a comprehensive victory.

Anfield seems to be developing into something of a fortress again – with this Liverpool’s fifth successive home victory.

The hype should be waivered somewhat when the opposition in the two most recent home fixtures is taken into consideration. West Ham United and Aston Villa have both presented very little resistance in successive 3-0 home wins.

Although, as the old cliché goes, you can only beat what is put in front of you. And for the Reds to achieve such a convincing win without the presence of Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher or Fernando Torres (who withdrew when his wife went into labour pre-kickoff) is significant. This the first time all three had been missing in over three years.

This match provided perhaps the most stark evidence that some of Liverpool’s most maligned squad players of recent seasons are being to prove their worth. Lucas was once again hugely influentially alongside Raul Meireles in the centre. Whilst the makeshift strike-force of N’Gog and Babel reflected favourably on both men and both got on the score sheet.

Liverpool did not seem to be suffering too badly from the loss of their most recognisable stars here. The ever-growing influence of Lucas and Meireles in midfield accosted for the continued absence of Gerrard. Maxi and Dirk Kuyt worked tirelessly on the wings. Whilst the pairing of N’Gog and Babel were a persistent threat to the Villa defence.

N’Gog set the tone for the evening when he put the Reds ahead after 14 minutes. Kuyt showed excellent perseverance to hassle former-Reds Stephen Warnock into conceding a corner from which the opener was scored.

Meireles’ delivery found Martin Skrtel, who beat Ciaran Clarke in the air and nodded the ball into the danger area. N’Gog demonstrated he predatory instincts to send a diving header beyond Brad Friedel , from close range. The French forward deserving his 8th goal in all competitions this campaign, after some notable recent form.

And Liverpool were two in front soon after, as they asserted their influence on a struggling Villa side. The Reds harried the visitors to win possession in midfield. And Lucas played a well-timed ball into the path of Babel. The offside decision was marginal but went in favour of the Dutchman. Babel’s control was adept, as he took the ball away from Warnock, swivelled a angled his shot into the far corner, in one fluid movement.

After an encouraging showing in a rare start up front against Steaua Bucharest, Babel showed even further signs of improvement here. He seems to relish the responsibility afforded to him by leading the attack, in the absence of Torres. The 23 year-old worked hard, deserved his goal and, in tandem with N’Gog, was a regular thorn in the side of the visiting defence. Perhaps a January sale is not quite a forgone conclusion.

With Aston Villa’s youthful midfield struggling to gain a foothold, the influence of Lucas and Meireles was ever-growing. Liverpool were controlling the match from the midfield and asking all of the questions.

Sotirios Kyrgiakos could have added a third goal in the opening quarter when he headed over at the far post from Meireles’ free-kick. The Greek – ever a threat in the opposition box – should have tested Freidel. The delivery of Meireles is proving to be a constant weapon for Liverpool. And another fine ball from the Portuguese was turned narrowly wide by Babel.

Aston Villa had offered no attacking threat in the opening half. But Houllier opted to introduce Nathan Delfuenso at the break to offer support for the isolated Gabriel Agbonlahor.

And it was Agbonlahor who came close to pulling a goal back for Villa. The away side’s only genuine chance of the night. Stewart Downing was the main threat for Villa and his cross from the left forced Pepe Reina into a fine close-range save from the striker’s effort. Securing his record 100th clean sheet from 198 league games.

The Reds put the victory beyond doubt soon after. Maxi adding a third in the 55th minutel. A swift counter-attacking move, started by Renia, culminated in N’Gog running down the left flank and crossing to the Argentine. Maxi, who had received the initial throw from Reina and continued his run, finished first time into the top corner.

Liverpool could have added further to Villa’s misery. A couple of thrusting runs from the right flank by Glen Johnson created two good opportunities for the right full-back. First, forcing Friedel into a good stop at his near post. Before lashing wildly over the American’s goal from a similar position.

Kyrgiakos headed another Meireles set-piece goalwards. Luke Young forced to clear off the line. The centre-back was later replaced by Martin Kelly due to cramp. And Skrtel also hit a good chance over the bar late on.

Hodgson may still desperately need to find some kind of winning formula on his travels. Yet the Reds are making a favourable habit of convincingly despatching visitors to their own home.

With the Reds currently at the beginning an agreeable run of five or six league fixtures between now and the new year – on paper at least. A great opportunity beckons for the Reds to continue their ascent up a tight Premier League table initiated by this result.

Man of the Match
Controlled the game from midfield alongside partner, Meireles. Lucas continued his impressive form this season against Villa. Babel also deserves credit for another, much improved performance.

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