After two extremely tough away matches to start the Premier League season, from which they emerged with great credit, Aston Villa failed to turn on the style on Saturday in front of their home supporters, as Liverpool, who were far from firing on all cylinders themselves, took the three points thanks to Daniel Sturridge.
The former Chelsea striker found the net midway through a first-half that saw Liverpool dominate possession but struggle for shots on goal. His finish into the roof of the net came after a superb passing move down the left flank. From then on, the Reds hung on unconvincingly, with Villa lacking the necessary quality to hit back.
Paul Lambert deviated slightly from the tactics which worked very well at Arsenal and Chelsea, in order for his side to play like the home team. Karim El Ahmadi, who had fitted in well alongside Fabian Delph and Ashley Westwood, was sacrificed in favour of the more attack-minded Leandro Bacuna, the summer signing from Groningen making his full debut.
Bacuna put in an efficient performance, and had the confidence to run at Jose Enrique, but was often outmuscled by the Spanish left-back. He was also not afraid to take the odd shot at goal.
Christian Benteke, however, was Villa’s biggest threat. Already this season he has shown his clinical edge and would have again got on the score sheet, and perhaps salvaged something for Villa, had it not been for the heroics of goalkeeper Simon Mignolet, who superbly denied him on two occasions.
These were rare openings in game of few clear cut opportunities, as Villa occasionally lacked ideas going forward. For the most part, Benteke and Andreas Weimann were well marshalled by the Liverpool defence, while Gabriel Agbonlahor seldom had the chance to show his pace and take players on.
The full-backs, Matthew Lowton and Antonio Luna, both struggled to get forward and support the attack on a regular basis. Indeed, Lowton was taken off during the second-half to be replaced by El Ahmadi in a tactical reshuffle from Lambert, after which Villa did look slightly more dangerous.
While Jores Okore had a generally sound game in defence, two more of Lambert’s six summer signings made appearances. Aleksandar Tonev replaced Weimann for the final 20 minutes, and seemed willing to take shots on goal whenever presented with chance, with three long range attempts. Meanwhile, there was a late first outing for big Danish striker Nicklas Helenius, whose header created Benteke’s second big opportunity.
Despite the result, Lambert declared himself pleased with the start that his side have made, and Villa’s performances have certainly justified praise, showing that they will be more competitive than they were for much of last season.
But Saturday’s defeat does show that they are still a work in progress going forward, especially at home. Admittedly, they were handed a daunting start to the season, and a Capital One Cup tie at home to Rotherham United on Tuesday, along with the international break, will give Villa some respite until they resume their Premier League campaign on September 14.
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