December 16, 2007 was the last time that Liverpool had lost a home Premier League game. Bankers around the world were still spending money with blissful ignorance, “What a Wonderful World”, a duet by Eva Cassidy and Katie Melua was top of the charts, and the Reds lined up against Manchester United having lost just once in the league all season.
One scrambled Carlos Tevez effort later, and it was two. The watching Tom Hicks – in an all too rare moment – showed an understanding of the game of football by claiming that the Reds had an “inferiority complex” when it came to playing United, something that needed to be put right if they were to have any chance of winning the league.
Last season it was put right. United and Chelsea were beaten home and away, but as so often with Liverpool’s efforts to sail convincingly towards to Premier League crown – covering up one hole in the ship just led to another appearing elsewhere. The so-called ‘lesser’ teams were frequently leaving Anfield with a point after the Reds struggled to break them down. The water was gushing in at an alarming rate, but at least there was consolation of a point from those games, and Liverpool barely looked like losing. This was not so last night.
Aston Villa’s 3-1 sinking of the Reds was thoroughly deserved. They packed the midfield, were quick on the counter-attack and possess one of the best goalkeepers in Premier League history in Brad Friedel. The American always gets an excellent reception at Anfield, where he served as a player between 1997 and 1999, making 31 appearances, and he constantly thwarted the Reds on a night when nothing seemed to go right. In a common, but often unreported, gesture after the final whistle, many Liverpool supporters stayed to applaud Friedel and his appreciative Villa team-mates off the pitch, accepting that they were beaten by the better side.
Not that Villa did not have their fair share of luck. How none of Steven Gerrard, Yossi Benayoun or Fernando Torres failed to score in an early scramble almost defied belief. Lucas would not be able to deflect the ball into his own net like that again if he tried. Nicky Shorey handled a Dirk Kuyt header onto the post early in the second half. The Reds had almost 70% of possession, with 24 shots at goal. But it is all too easy to offer up excuses.
Aston Villa won the match because the best three midfielders on the night were all wearing white. Nigel Reo-Coker was excellent in the centre and James Milner and Ashley Young stretched the Reds all night with intelligent wing play. Glen Johnson – Liverpool’s best player in all three of their matches so far – wasn’t able to terrorise Villa in the same way he did Stoke simply because of the threat of Young down the Reds’ right flank.
Gerrard – the scorer of a hat-trick in this fixture last season – looked off the pace this time around, frequently failing to get into the box and on the end of things. The rash lunge on Reo-Coker for the penalty wasn’t a shock to anyone who had seen Gerrard dive wildly into a couple of challenges in the previous 30 seconds. At a time when the Reds were back in the game following Torres’ goal, perhaps a cooler head was required from the Liverpool captain.
Benitez may well have been referring to his captain after the game with his somewhat obvious assertion that: “When you are losing, the only way to change things is to win – that’s the only way. You can talk about some names but clearly the team as a team has to improve. The senior players have more experience and they have to take responsibility and go forward.”
Perhaps the fixture list is offering some solace to the Liverpool boss this morning. After visiting Bolton on Saturday they then face clashes with Burnley (home), West Ham (away) and Hull City (home) – all bringing their own different challenges but each eminently winnable. The odds on the Reds being champions have lengthened alarmingly after suffering as many defeats in three matches this season as they did in 38 last time around. If those odds are to shorten then surely at least 10 points needs to be taken from these next four matches, with the Reds re-discovering their previously excellent home form. What a Wonderful World? Not this morning on Merseyside.
Liverpool Club Focus
The People of Thailand & Singapore vs. Xabi Alonso – July 29
Should nobody expect a Spanish acquisition? – August 5
High hopes – August 12
False start – August 18
Plenty of bets, but no slip – August 21
Three games, two defeats and one big problem – August 25