Reds fire without big guns on miserable return for Houllier
Aston Villa 0
Gerard Houllier touched the 'This Is Anfield' sign before kick-off and received a warm reception from the Kop, but this was a chastening trip back to his old home.
His Aston Villa side were easily brushed aside by Liverpool, who rose to eighth in the Premier League with goals from David Ngog, Ryan Babel and Maxi Rodriguez.
To the delight of freezing Liverpool fans, good performances could be found all over the chilled ground. Raul Meireles and Lucas impressed as a central midfield pair, Glen Johnson was excellent on the right, while Pepe Reina, barring one early mistake, made a terrific save from Gabby Agbonlahor and also played a significant part in Liverpool's third.
The only Villa visitors to emerge with any credit were their magnificent fans, who sang, "We're going to win the league" and celebrated a rare passing move with chants of "ole". Otherwise, Liverpool were in complete control.
Already missing Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher, Liverpool were also without Fernando Torres, whose wife was heavily pregnant. Liverpool's strikers certainly delivered, Ngog and Babel both finding the mark within 15 minutes. Babel had been drafted in alongside Ngog as Roy Hodgson continued with a 4-4-2 system. Dirk Kuyt kept breaking inside from the right, supporting the front line and went close with an early volley.
On the coldest of evenings, mistakes were to be expected. Reina gifted Villa an early opportunity with a wayward goal-kick, but Liverpool quickly settled.
When Kuyt pressured Villa's defence into conceding a corner, Liverpool took full advantage. Meireles lifted the ball over, Martin Skrtel nodded back and there was the diving Ngog to head the ball past Brad Friedel, another Anfield alumni making a painful return to this famous footballing theatre.
One quickly became two. Liverpool were brimming with energy and movement, but Villa were so poor, so hesitant. Lucas was working well alongside Meireles, men against the boys of Villa. Granted too much time in possession Lucas lifted the ball down the inside-right channel for Babel to chase.
Villa screamed for offside, pausing fatefully. Babel eluded Stephen Warnock, another visitor enduring an awkward journey down memory lane. Babel still had much to do. The Dutchman's finish was magnificent, the ball thumped from right to left past Friedel.
Two goals to the good, Liverpool then seemed to pause for breath, allowing Villa to think of an improbable comeback. Given some time in possession, Houllier's players began pushing on. Marc Albrighton and Stewart Downing, who switched flanks on occasion, started running at Paul Konchesky and Johnson, who held firm.
Such was the excellence of one Johnson interception that Reina, captain for the evening, ran from his line to salute a right-back not always noted for his defensive work. Villa's youngsters toiled hard. Agbonlahor led the line but got little change from Skrtel or Sotirios Kyrgiakos in the first half.
Behind Agbonlahor, Stephen Ireland was operating in the hole but whenever he dropped deep, Lucas snapped into him. Liverpool's central midfield was impressing, particularly Meireles, who was patently enjoying the chance in the centre granted to him by Gerrard's hamstring injury. Frustration began to seep into Villa's movements, seen nastily with a lunge by Ciaran Clark on Lucas, bringing a fifth caution of the season and a one-game ban for the midfielder.
Villa were losing the ball as well as their composure; Liverpool kept being gifted possession and it was a surprise the scoreboard showed only 2-0 to Liverpool at the interval.
Replays at half-time confirmed Villa's suspicions that Babel was offside and their dismay soon deepened when Liverpool added a third.
Reina was the catalyst, launching the ball through the midfield. As the Kop stood in anticipation over the blur of movement hurtling towards them, Maxi and Ngog executed a superb one-two. As Ngog raced down the left, Maxi kept charging through the middle.
The Frenchman's cutback was perfection, judged expertly for the Argentine, who opened up his body and side-footed the ball at pace past Friedel.
As Liverpool celebrated, the fans doubtless reserved a silent thought for Reina, who had just made an important, close-range save from Agbonlahor.
From a possible 2-1, Liverpool now led 3-0 and Villa were embarrassed. Houllier had already brought on Nathan Delfouneso for Clark, and sent on Robert Pires and John Carew for Albrighton and Agbonlahor. As rescue teams go, it was hardly on the youthful, mobile side.
Liverpool then almost scored a fourth, Johnson waltzing past Pires and Warnock before bringing a good save from Friedel. (© Daily Telegraph, London)