Monday, March 23, 2009

Match Report: LiverpooL 5 - 0 Aston Villa

Liverpool are breathing down Manchester United's necks in the Premier League title race after destroying fifth-placed Aston Villa.

It was the third stunning Liverpool victory in 12 days, having previously put four past Real Madrid and Manchester United.

The champions' lead is now one point - they also have a game in hand - but Liverpool have now scored more goals than Sir Alex Ferguson's men and have also wiped out their goal-difference advantage.

Villa had no answer to a side with a driven desire to take the title from under United's noses.

Steven Gerrard scored a hat-trick with a free-kick and two penalties, with the latter one following the dismissal of goalkeeper Brad Friedel for bringing down Reds striker Fernando Torres.

In the first-half Dirk Kuyt and Albert Riera had scored, before Gerrard took over with his set-piece onslaught.

Liverpool had Xabi Alonso and Alvaro Arbeloa back from respective ankle and hamstring injuries that ruled them out of last weekend's win at Manchester United, with Sami Hyypia and Lucas relegated to the bench.

They were joined there by defender Daniel Agger, who has only played one game since mid-December after a variety of injury problems.

Villa boss Martin O'Neill left out striker Gabriel Agbonlahor, who has scored only twice since before Christmas and was booed by his club's own fans last weekend. Defender Zat Knight was also on the bench, with John Carew and Curtis Davies back in the side.

There was still a solemn start to the proceedings, with a minute's silence following the death on Saturday of 56-year-old club secretary Bryce Morrison, after he had flown back from the Champions League draw in Switzerland.

Morrison, who had worked at Anfield for 17 years, suffered a heart attack at home. Both teams wore black armbands.

The game got off to a blistering start, and after eight minutes Liverpool were ahead.

Alonso's header from Gerrard's free-kick cracked against the bar, and Dirk Kuyt reacted quickest to blast the ball home from 12 yards.

At the other end Ashley Young's cross arrowed in from the left and Carew's flick at the near post almost caught out Jose Reina - but the goalkeeper tipped the ball over the angle.

The contest was ferocious, and Gerrard was then rightly booked for a fierce, late, challenge on Davies.

Then Reina made another outstanding save to his left to claw away a towering header from Carew - who played under Benitez at Valencia.

Liverpool were relentless and after 33 minutes they claimed a second goal.

Reina's 80-yard clearance was allowed to bounce once on the edge of the area by a Villa defence pre-occupied with Torres and Riera took full advantage by smashing the dropping ball high into the net.

It could have been three when Arbeloa intercepted a bad Friedel clearance inside the Villa box, but he chose to pass to Torres rather than shooting himself.

But the third was not long coming. After 39 minutes Riera controlled a searching crossfield pass from Kuyt, and was brought down in the box by Nigel Reo-Coker. Gerrard smashed home the spot-kick.

Any thoughts of a Villa revival were crushed after 50 minutes when Carlos Cuellar brought down Kuyt on the edge of the box and Gerrard drilled the free-kick low to Friedel's left and into the bottom corner.

Former Reds striker Emile Heskey had a header held by Reina, but was by now being employed on the left trying to halt Arbeloa and Kuyt's flow down the flank - with Young switched to a central attacking role.

The ploy did not last long - Agbonlahor replaced Heskey after 58 minutes, with Young back on the line- but things got worse for Villa after 63 minutes when Friedel was dismissed for clashing with Torres and Gerrard drilled home the fifth past Villa's reserve keeper Brad Guzan.

Lucas, Agger and David Ngog replaced Alonso, Arbeloa and Gerrard in the closing minutes of a comprehensive victory.

O'Neill Praises In-Form Reds

Martin O'Neill admitted that his side were beaten by an 'exceptional' Liverpool side after they crashed to a 5-0 defeat at Anfield on Sunday.

The Aston Villa boss added that although their opponents were superior his side had contributed to their own downfall.

A Steven Gerrard hat-trick and goals from Dirk Kuyt and Albert Riera compounded Villa's misery as they slipped three points behind Arsenal in the race for fourth spot.

O'Neill will have to make do without first choice goalkeeper Brad Friedel when his side travel to Manchester United next time out after he conceded a penalty and was sent off for bringing down Fernando Torres in the area with the score at 4-0.

"We were well beaten by an exceptional Liverpool side," he said.

"But we did contribute to our own downfall. At 1-0 down, we gave away an unbelievably bad goal. It was a shocking mistake.

"Liverpool have had two remarkable results before this game, beating Real Madrid and Manchester United - and they certainly did not need any help from us to achieve what they wanted."

The former Leicester and Celtic boss confirmed that his side played poorly but was confident that they could get back on track sooner rather than later.

"We played poorly. We gave away some lousy goals and we have to get back on track," he highlighted.

"We were doing fine four or five weeks ago, but we were well beaten by a better side. But we are a better side than we showed in this game."

Gerrard Ready To Pounce

Steven Gerrard has insisted that Liverpool are not getting carried away despite closing the gap on Manchester United at the top of the Premier League.

Reds skipper Gerrard inspired his side once again as he fired his first Premier League hat-trick in the 5-0 romp over Aston Villa on Sunday.

The title race is now firmly back on after successive wins over Villa and United the week before, but Gerrard is adamant they cannot presume that the defending champions' bid to reclaim their title has floundered.

"I think it is important not to get carried away. They are capable of winning all their remaining games," Gerrard told Sky Sports.

"It is important we focus on what we're doing and keep winning, keep on their shoulders, keep piling that pressure on them and whilst they are going into games knowing we are ready to pounce on any mistakes that they make it will be more difficult for them."

England star Gerrard, like most of Liverpool's squad, is now linking up with his national squad but he insists the international break is not a negative.

"It is a good break. We go away with our international teams, get some wins for our countries and come back ready to play again," he concluded.

Rafa Wanted More Goals From Reds

Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez wanted more despite the 5-0 thumping of Aston Villa on Sunday which moved the Reds closer to Manchester United.

Benitez was disappointed from the point that Villa goalkeeper Brad Friedel was sent off for conceding Liverpool's second penalty - which resulted in their final goal.

From then on, with 25 minutes left, the Anfield men took their foot off the gas.

They had already overhauled United's once superior goal difference, have now scored more times than the champions this season - and now sit just one point behind their deadly rivals, who remain top of the table.

"There were times after the fifth goal when we should have gone on and scored more," said Benitez.

"We should have kept going, scored more and made sure that our goal difference was better when we were playing against 10 men.

"You never know what we will need, how many more goals we could have scored during that period.

"Don't get me wrong. I was happy with the performance and the result, but we should have gone on and scored more."

Albert Riera and Dirk Kuyt scored in the first period, before Steven Gerrard got the first of his dead-ball hat-trick.

The first came from the spot after a foul on Riera, and the second was a 20-yard free-kick after Kuyt had been felled. Gerrard then netted the fifth from the spot, after Friedel had been dismissed for bringing down Fernando Torres.

Benitez is content now that Liverpool have put themselves back into a position from which they can help shape their own destiny.

"As far as the title chase is concerned, we just have to keep doing our job - we must not be concerned about United's results and how they are playing," he believes.

"If United do make mistakes we must be ready, and that means carrying on doing what we are doing and winning points.

"We are playing well, and they will see that we are playing well and trying to win every game. We have eight games left, and every one must be won - and be treated as a cup final.

"Certainly we must maintain this momentum, and when we are playing well it just increases confidence.

"We now have an international break, so the players must come back from that, re-group and start playing again just as we are at the moment."

Benitez paid tribute to Liverpool secretary Bryce Morrison, who died on Saturday morning.

"Bryce is a big loss to this club, and this has been a big week for us. But this is a very sad day," he said.

Rafael Benitez Warns No Slip-Ups Allowed

Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez warned his side must maintain their momentum if they are going to snatch the league title from under Manchester United's noses.

Benitez witnessed the 5-0 demolition of 10-man Aston Villa at Anfield that sees the Reds close to within one point of the champions, who have a game in hand.

He said: "As far as the title chase is concerned, we just have to keep doing our job, we must not be concerned about United's results and how they are playing."

Steven Gerrard scored a dead-ball hat-trick while Albert Riera and Dirk Kuyt added the others as Liverpool made it three stunning wins in 12 days having beaten Manchester United and Real Madrid 4-1 and 4-0 respectively.

Benitez added: "If United do make mistakes, we must be ready, and that means carrying on doing what we are doing and winning points.

"We are playing well and they will see that we are playing well and trying to win every game. We have eight games left and every one must be won and be treated as a cup final.

"Certainly we must maintain this momentum and, when we are playing well, it just increases confidence.

"We now have an international break so the players must come back from that, re-group and start playing again just as we are at the moment."

Gareth Barry Snubs Villa Over New Contract And Could Join Liverpool At Last

Gareth Barry has rejected talks with Aston Villa over a new deal according to Sunday newspaper reports, which would seem to pave the way for a summer move to Liverpool.

The 28-year-old will only have a year left on his current contract at the end of the season, and his stalling over an extension could be good news for Rafa Benitez.

The Liverpool manager was keen to buy Barry last year, but after a saga that lasted months Anfield chief executive Rick Parry failed to complete the deal.

And with Benitez now in a stronger position than he has ever been in, having signed a new five year deal and Parry set to leave the club, Barry looks set to finally get his wish.

Villa have enjoyed a fine season under Martin O'Neill, and are still challenging to win a place in the Champions League, but Barry will still be tempted by the size of Liverpool, who are currently chasing both the league title and European Cup.

Red Card Was Harsh, Moans Friedel

Aston Villa goalkeeper Brad Friedel has insisted he should not have been sent off for bringing down Fernando Torres at Anfield on Sunday.

The American shot-stopper was dismissed in the second half and Steven Gerrard converted the resulting penalty to make it 5-0 to Liverpool.

But Friedel was far from happy with referee Martin Atkinson, who he insisted got it wrong as he feels Nigel Reo-Coker was level with Torres - thus not making him the last man.

"I just stood my ground, and as the cameras show I turned my shoulders to show that I didn't try to make contact - he (Torres) is the one who ran in and made contact with me," Friedel told Sky Sports.

"Does he have an argument for a penalty sure, does he have an argument for a booking sure, but a sending off is very harsh considering he had a defender alongside him."

Friedel is now set to miss Villa's next match at Manchester United.

Villa Give Anfield's Central Force A Free Rein

Liverpool began at an intense pace with fast, accurate one-touch passing. Somewhat surprisingly, Martin O'Neill persisted with his 4-4-2 formation, accommodating John Carew and Emile Heskey as a front pairing and sacrificing Gabriel Agbonlahor. But more importantly Villa needed a third central midfield player or one of their front two to drop back to help compensate for Liverpool's clear superiority.

Teams who have drawn at Anfield, such as Stoke, West Ham and Hull, have resisted the temptation to open up centrally. Stilian Petrov and Gareth Barry, so influential in the first half against Spurs last week, desperately needed help as Liverpool flocked forward and countered too quickly for the Midlanders.

Carew and Heskey looked like a pair of lumberjacks compared with the wiles and cunning of Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres. The Villa front two played square with each other. For Liverpool Gerrard dropped off and oozed class as he drifted into acres of free space to terrorise Villa. Even early on it was essential that Villa tried to mirror Liverpool's system. Villa were overly brave, keeping James Milner (not as quick as Aaron Lennon but a more accurate crosser) and Ashley Young as their wide targets. But Liverpool's trio, with Javier Mascherano and the superb passing of Xabi Alonso at the base of the triangle and Gerrard at the apex, never gave Villa a second to dictate. Petrov and Barry strived vainly with their beleaguered colleagues but whenever they tried to stand up to Liverpool the hosts were in command.

Brad Friedel's sending off was harsh but with Gerrard celebrating another penalty success Villa still refused to go for damage limitation. Alonso left the field to deserved, sustained applause but it was an easy afternoon for him to display his talents. However, it was Gerrard who was the key who unlocked Villa so readily.

He floated into free space and enjoyed the freedom of the centre of Anfield. Villa were guilty of not marking him or closing him down or making his life difficult. The best current English player has given Liverpool a huge lift and left the Villa manager searching for the aspirins. At least O'Neill is one of the best at recovering from headaches.

Liverpool To Bid For Gareth Barry, David Villa & David Silva

According to a report in the British tabloid The Sunday Mirror, Liverpool are preparing to launch a triple end-of-season offer for Aston Villa's Gareth Barry, and Valencia duo David Villa and David Silva.

Apparently, the Reds' American owners are ready to back their manager Rafa Benitez with €106.3 million (£100m) in order to land the transfer targets.

It is also claimed that should the Spaniard decide to cash-in on any of his squad members at Anfield, he will be allowed to invest those funds in new acquisitions.

It is thought that Benitez has also identified Wigan Athletic's right-sided winger Antonio Valencia, although recent speculation has linked the Ecuador international with a move to Manchester United.

Liverpool's Fabio Aurelio Hopeful Of Brazil Call-Up

The Liverpool full-back still has high hopes that he could be in line for a Selecao call-up, after suffering badly on the international front in the past.

Liverpool left-back Fabio Aurelio has hinted that he would love to represent his country in the Confederations Cup at the end of the season.

The Brazilian defender has had extremely bad luck in the past, when been called up for international duty, but hopes now are the time for him.

The former Valencia man has been called up twice by Brazil, and both times has been stopped by serious injury.

Firstly, he suffered a serious knee injury just a day after he got the nod. Then, during the 2006/7 season, he damaged his Achilles and was once again unable to take part.

The 29-year-old has been a big part of his country's youth and Olympics squads, having played a total of 42 times, but is yet to play for the senior side.

However, there are rumours that he is to receive a call-up in the not-too-distant future by Brazil coach Dunga, and the former Sao Paulo player has his heart set on featuring at the end of the season.

Speaking to The Sunday Times, Aurelio said, "They say left-back is not a position which is closed and there's a Confederations Cup at the end of the season, so it would be a good time to get involved.

"It's a big frustration I got injured before and I'd like to have at least one chance. I think I could take my opportunity."

Aurelio joined the Liverpool in 2006 from Valencia, and has since played 80 Premier League games for the club, scoring three times in the process.