Liverpool overcame an awful first-half display to salvage a 2-2 draw at home to Aston Villa, but were ultimately left frustrated at dropping vital points in the race for a Champions League berth.
With Liverpool’s system and personnel leaving them woefully unbalanced in the opening half, a far hungrier Villa side took a deserved 2-0 lead. Yet Daniel Sturridge’s stylish goal right before half-time crucially paved a way back into the game. A reshaped Liverpool side then equalized early in the second half when Steven Gerrard scored from the spot after Luis Suarez had controversially been awarded a penalty for going down claiming contact from Brad Guzan. But Liverpool lacked the necessary vigor to build on their momentum as Villa held on, with few scares, to a welcome point
Just one point ahead of Everton at the start of play, Liverpool now know that they will go into the Merseyside derby at the end of the month in fifth place if their local rivals beat West Brom on Monday night. And Rodgers, who had Liverpool’s owner John W. Henry watching on from the directors’ box, will know that his side can ill-afford many more performances in this vein if they are to end their exile from the Champions League.
In order to accommodate Sturridge, after his fine cameo on his return from injury last week, Brendan Rodgers elected to sacrifice the midfield cover of Lucas Leiva. But with Steven Gerrard as the anchorman, alongside Jordan Henderson and with the offensive minded Philippe Coutinho and Raheem Sterling on the flanks, Liverpool always looked ripe to be torn apart. And that’s exactly what Villa did, as they showed off their impressive pace on the break that has meant their record being far superior away from home than at Villa Park this season.
The chances came thick and fast for the visitors early on. After Gerrard overran the ball, Ashley Westwood had a snap shot from the edge of the box saved by Simon Mignolet. As well as their unhelpful tactical shape, Liverpool were also looking far from sharp in body or mind. That listlessness was epitomized when Ciaran Clark was easily allowed to escape the attentions of Glen Johnson from a corner to get a free header that he really should have buried but instead was denied by the upright.
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The only surprise when Villa took the lead in the 25th minute, was that it had taken so long in coming. The method of the goal was all too predictable, with Liverpool caught wide open from a break started by Fabian Delph and continued by Christian Benteke. Gabriel Agbonalhor’s pace was key as he ran in behind Kolo Toure, waited for support and then tricked the Ivorian defender down the left of the area before drilling the ball across the face of the six-yard box where Weimann was on hand to turn it into the net.
Just over 10 minutes later, even the most ardent Liverpool supporter couldn’t have questioned the merits of Villa doubling their lead. Agbonlahor was this time the creator, with a cross from the right, but Mignolet was badly at fault, coming out and tipping it away from the head of his own defender, Johnson, but only succeeding in directing it onto the head of Benteke who had the simplest of tasks to direct it into the vacant net.
At that point Villa were in total control, yet Paul Lambert would have been fully aware that Liverpool’s attacking talent meant they were far from safe. And a glorious move got Liverpool right back into the contest on the stroke of half-time. Luis Suarez played a low ball into Jordan Henderson in the box, who produced a glorious flick for Sturridge in behind and the forward finished with a delightful dink over Guzan.
That goal was crucial, as was Rodgers’s predictable decision at the interval to replace the wasteful Coutinho with Lucas. With three at the back and an extra man in the center of midfield, Liverpool instantly had a better balance. Within eight minutes of the restart they were back on level terms.
Perhaps helped by having greater freedom, Gerrard had time to look up from the halfway line and pick out a trademark inch-perfect long pass right onto the boot of Suarez through on goal. The Uruguayan was heading wide when, as he took it past Guzan, the Villa keeper withdrew his hands, but, appearing to be looking for some contact, Suarez found the merest of glances and went to ground. Villa may have had justification for feeling aggrieved, and even more so when Gerrard promptly dispatched the penalty into the corner, but it was still clumsy from Guzan.
The equalizer might have been expected to be the precursor to more goals from the home side to get the victory they craved. But the pressure never arrived as Villa held on, largely with a degree of comfort. Still, they were grateful for their keeper making a superb one-handed stop to deny Henderson’s snap-shot from the edge of the box, while hearts will have been in mouths when Suarez’s brilliantly taken free-kick sailed inches wide of the post.