Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Crunch Time for Rodgers and Liverpool

This is crucial time for Brendan Rodgers and Liverpool.  The club are in a better position at this stage of the season than at any time since 2009.  Many argue if they are to capitalise on this then the squad needs strengthening.

Rodgers has already declared publicly he believes the squad does not have enough depth.  As the season moves towards February and the final 3-4 months, it is now when the quality of a squad is tested to its maximum.

If you look back at the clubs who have finished in the top four over the past ten years, most of them have a better second half of the season than the first.  Take Manchester United for example, and you’ll often find they lose games in the first half of the season, yet not many in the second half – or at least they did under Alex Ferguson.

But as the season goes on squads are tested, players pick up injuries, fixtures come thick and fast, and you’re playing against teams who suddenly realise there is little left of the season and they may need the points too.

On the day of the 222nd Merseyside derby, Liverpool goes into the game one point ahead of their neighbours.  They have many things in their favour for the run-in, mainly the fixture list.  With the exception of Manchester United, all the top teams still have to come to Anfield where Liverpool have played their best football this season.  Some of the clubs around them also have European competitions to negotiate.  But has Liverpool got the sufficient squad depth to cope with the rigours of a season which promises to be a real dog-fight?

Since arriving at the club in summer 2012, Rodgers has made it very clear about the project he is building at Liverpool.  He has a very clear idea of the type of player he believes suits the vision he has for the way he wants the team to play.  He generally prefers mobile and flexible players, who are not one-dimensional.  He is also very clear in wanting to buy ‘potential’, good players who may blossom into very good ones.  Like many other managers, he has been very keen to use the loan system as well.

But there is disquiet amongst some Liverpool fans.  They see their rivals strengthening squads already perceived as being stronger than at Anfield, and they worry we may be left with a situation where Academy players are forced to come in during high profile matches because of injuries to more established regulars.

Following this transfer window has been a little like watching someone playing Football Manager or FIFA.  On these games you can buy anyone, for a price, and then ship them back out if it doesn’t work.  Or if things really have gone pear-shaped you can ‘do a Holloway’ and switch the game off, then start again with another team.  One of the problems with many of England’s top sides being owned by rich people is that the club’s fans just expect them to spend money.  This wild desire for the owners to ‘spend money or leave’ seems to be based on a belief that just because they’d buy their wives and girlfriends whatever they wanted, or buy their kids cars, houses etc, that these wealthy individuals should treat the football clubs in the same way and just buy players, regardless of their potential or use, simply because we might need them.

As an avid Football Manager user I have often fallen victim to a tactic of buying players simply to stop my rivals from getting hold of them.  It is easy with someone else’s money, after all, and these numbers are simply that, numbers.  But many of these rich men have become rich on the basis they were prudent with their cash.  Investing isn’t just about buying things for the sake of it; it is about paying a price you believe to be of the right value.  Any investor who has made money will tell you the time to buy is when prices are low.  But the logical principles of investing are rarely successful in football.  Sometimes buying football players can be like buying expensive cars.  Their price is at its highest the moment you write the cheque, after that the value drops with every use.

With three days to go in the transfer window the prospect of new faces at Anfield seems as distant as ever.  The club was chasing Mohamed Salah, having tracked the player for months.  As negotiations were reaching a critical stage, in came Chelsea and just asked the player’s agents to name their price, then promptly paid it.  Is Salah what Chelsea needs?  Is he even what Liverpool needs?  Personally, I think the answer to both questions is no, but this was a real example of what is happening in football and something it is very easy to accuse American owners of understanding little about.  In American sports the concept of football’s transfer window is completely foreign.  Much like promotion and relegation, and so it is easy to believe these people do not have a clue how it all works.  There is, of course, the other view which says that they are not willing to play that game and will not pay way more for a player than is strictly necessary, and just because there are people prepared to pay that price, does not mean they should.  The Salah transfer is also an example of a player’s agents chasing the money rather than thinking of the player’s career prospects.  It was rumoured the player favoured Liverpool as he believed he would get more game time, whereas he has chosen a club which already has a full squad at the club as well as another full squad out on loan.  He has chosen a club who has just sold a player for £37m because he couldn’t get a game.  It would be interesting to see what Victor Moses thinks of all this.  Since he left Chelsea on loan to Liverpool, his employers seem to have taken steps to replace him already.  An interesting alternative to hot-desking.

My personal view on this current transfer window is that it is very quiet.  In fact, I can see Jim White will be desperately trying to convince his SkyTV employers to show highlights of ‘windows of the past’ as he may struggle to fill his 24hour slot with enough information.  Even his old trump card, Harry Redknapp, seems unlikely to be letting down his car window for some more fascinating insight into the world of the ‘wheeler-dealer’.  Even Odemwingie seems reasonably settled so he may not be trusted to turn up at a football ground near you, hoping for some coverage.  In fact, to highlight how dull this transfer window is, even sponsorship and kit deals are becoming news.

My own view on Rodgers and the owners, FSG, is that they have backed him for a reasonable amount of money already and are still waiting to see a return on this investment.  There is little doubt his purchases last January of Sturridge and Coutinho have proved to be very successful.  Yet of his summer 2013 purchases, only Mignolet has been a regular.  Sakho has looked a good long term buy, yet we have seen little of Aspas, Alberto and Toure and nothing of Ilori, who is now back out on loan.  Rodgers is into his 2nd season of a 3 year contract and this could be evidence of FSG just hedging their bets a little.  Of course, it should not be forgotten they backed the manager in the summer with their handling of Luis Suarez, demanding the player remember he had a signed contract with the club and then when Suarez declared his desire to stay at Liverpool, they upped his salary considerably.  If Liverpool don’t qualify for Champions League football next season then there will be all sorts of pressure on Suarez to decide whether he continues to stay or go, and if he has a great World Cup then he may be more inclined to move on.  His agents will certainly be keen to receive another bonus, having already no doubt filled their coffers with the new contract deal.

This is something I believe football must sort out very quickly.  It can never be right for a club to pay an agent who negotiates a new contract on behalf of a player.  The agent is employed by the player, not the club, and therefore the player should pay the agent.  All too often this results in undue influence and means that contract negotiations remain in the murky, guttural depths of a suspect system which is all too easily flouted.  The days of brown envelopes, or used notes in briefcases haven’t necessarily gone away, they are just being delivered to different addresses.

For any agent who believes he and his client deserves a better contract, they usually use the media to drip information suggesting the player may be ‘unhappy’.  Even Football Manager has worked this out.  You try managing two big clubs in the same game and you’ll find yourself offered players from one club when you, as manager of that club, don’t even know anything about it.

For longer standing fans such as myself we can often make the mistake of just ‘trusting the club’.  Liverpool used to carry out its transfer dealings in secret and you could often question what was the point of buying a young Irishman from an unknown club somewhere north of Dublin, to then find he blossoms into one of the finest left –sided midfielders of his generation.  I am, of course, talking about Bob Paisley’s decision to replace Ray Kennedy with Ronnie Whelan.  There have been countless examples of Liverpool getting many transfers right.  But times have changed, in fact the previous owners saw to that, and with transfers of players being much more prevalent it is all too common to make mistakes.  After all, as anyone who has experienced re-location will tell you, there is a lot more to a move than just a change of scenery.

Has Liverpool the squad to push for 4th place?  If they all stay fit I believe they have.  But that is a big ‘if’.  Many players will be pushing for World Cup places and will be reluctant to be forced to sit out games, but the key to the club’s and its manager’s success is now managing that squad through a crucial period.  Rodgers may be forced to change the make-up of the side, especially with Lucas being out for a while, but he may benefit from players such as Sturridge, Henderson and Johnson all pushing to be the plane to Brazil for the summer.  This World Cup could provide the platform for Luis Suarez to show his talent off to the world on the same stage as Messi and Ronaldo.  Add to that the fact that Victor Moses may soon come to realise he needs to find a club for next season, whether it be his current landlord, Liverpool, or his current employer, Chelsea or someone completely different.  This could all prove to be an ideal way of bringing the squad together to fight for Champions League places.

One final point concerns the manager again.  If this is a test from FSG do not be surprised to hear one or two comments from Rodgers regarding the current playing squad.  Liverpool fans experienced a lot of this ‘moving pieces around a board’ style of tactic when Benitez was in charge.  Up to now Rodgers has been keen never to criticise his employers, but as the pressure ramps up any bitterness he may feel inside if he believes he has not been backed, may inadvertently rise to the surface.  He may soon come to find out the answer the question – was he THE man for the job, or just A man?

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Five Favourite Wins Against - Everton at Home

Continuing the series where I look back at my five favourite wins the Liverpool’s next opponents.  This weekend Liverpool play the Merseyside derby against Everton at Anfield.  Here are my five favourite wins from past encounters.

6th November 1983
LIVERPOOL   (1)   3   (Rush 16, Robinson 60, Nicol 85)
EVERTON   (0)   0  

LIVERPOOL: Grobbelaar; Neal, Hansen, Lawrenson, Kennedy; Lee, Souness, Nicol; Robinson, Rush, Dalglish

EVERTON: Southall; Harper, Ratcliffe, Higgins, Bailey; Steven, Irvine, King, Sheedy; Heath, Sharp

This game was played on a Sunday and Liverpool stood the chance of going top of the table after Manchester United lost the day before.  Everton were down in 16th having scored fewer goals than any other side in the division.

After quarter of an hour, Hansen brought the play forward passing to Dalglish just inside his own half on the left.  Dalglish played a beautifully weighted pass splitting Harper and Ratcliffe for Nicol to run onto.  Nicol then beat Harper down by the bye-line and his low cross was only parried by Southall and Rush was on hand to fire the ball home.  Rush had got the only goal in Bilbao in midweek in the European Cup, and had scored 5 goals against Luton the last time Liverpool were at home.

Neither side created many real clear-cut chances for the rest of the half but on the hour Grobbelaar picked out a cross easily enough and then his long throw sent Dalglish on his way down the left.  Dalglish moved infield finding Lee on the right. His cross was headed out for a corner.  Dalglish was becoming more and more influential and as Liverpool patiently waited for an opening, Souness played Dalglish in on the right edge of the area, just as he had done for many years, and his low cross had Rush trying to grab his second at the near post.  The ball bounced off the post and across the goal where Robinson was unmarked at the back post to turn the ball in.

Graeme Sharp tried to chip Grobbelaar from outside the area but the ball landed on the bar.  Then as they were closing the game out, Dalglish found Rush on the right, who then turned it back for Lawrenson to cross.  His cross was met by Nicol for the third goal.  The whole performance was very comfortable as Liverpool played the ball about at will.

Liverpool were back on top of the table and they ended up winning in Joe Fagan’s first season in charge.  They also won the League Cup and their fourth European Cup.  Everton recovered from their poor start.  They were 16th on Boxing Day and went onto finish 7th.

25th April 1987
LIVERPOOL   (2)   3   (McMahon 9, Rush 45, 85)
EVERTON (1)   1   (Sheedy 15)

LIVERPOOL: Hooper; Venison, Gillespie, Hansen, Ablett; Johnston, Molby, Spackman, McMahon, Whelan; Rush

EVERTON: Southall; Stevens, Watson, Ratcliffe, Power; Steven, Reid, Snodin, Sheedy; Heath, Clarke

When Everton arrived for the derby in 1987 they were top of the league by 6pts with Liverpool in 2nd.  Liverpool had played a game more and only had 3 more to go after this one, so a win was vital.

Everton had won their last 7 and were on fire, conceding just twice during that run and had lost just once in their last 11.  This run had seen them overhaul Liverpool who were leading in mid-March.  They had won just once in their last 5, losing the other 4.  Having won the double the year before they were struggling to hold onto their League title.

Anfield was packed, with thousands locked outside, and the game belonged to Ian Rush.  He equalled Dixie Dean’s record of 19 goals in Merseyside derbies, as Liverpool managed to keep the title race alive.  This was the period when Liverpool and Everton dominated English football, sharing nearly all the trophies between them. 

Nine minutes in and Ablett drove down the right, exchanging passes with Rush before the Welshman flicked the ball to McMahon who unleashed an unstoppable shot which left Southall helpless.  The move had been stunning in its simplicity but had also involved most of the Liverpool team.  But 6 minutes later Everton were level.  They had a free-kick just outside the area which Kevin Sheedy curled beautifully over the wall and past Hooper.  Two goals in the opening 15 minutes and from players playing against their old clubs.

The rest of the half belonged to Everton who played, as Howard Kendall remarked “one of our best performances at Anfield”.  But they were unable to take the lead and right on half-time Johnston’s left wing corner was headed home by Rush, as Southall hardly moved.  2-1 at the break but Everton still pressed in the second half with Heath and Clarke forcing Hooper into good saves.  73 minutes in and Spackman threaded the ball through to Rush who was one-on-one with Southall.  The Everton keeper came out on top on that occasion, but 11 minutes later Rush had the last laugh.  A cross by Ablett had Rush bearing down on the Everton goal again and this time he managed to force the ball over the keeper for a 3-1 win.

It prolonged the destination of the title for just a short while.  Liverpool then lost at Coventry and when Everton won at Norwich on 4th May they were crowned Champions for the second time in three years, eventually winning the title by 9pts from Liverpool in 2nd.

31st August 1991
LIVERPOOL   (2)   3   (Burrows 1, Saunders 15, Houghton 62)
EVERTON   (0)   1   (Newell 76) 

LIVERPOOL: Grobbelaar; Nicol, Tanner, Ablett, Burrows; Houghton, McMahon, Whelan (Marsh); McManaman, Saunders, Walters (Rosenthal)

EVERTON: Southall; Harper, Watson, Keown (Ratcliffe), Ebbrell; Ward, McDonald, Sheedy; Beardsley, Cottee (Warzycha), Newell

This would be the last Merseyside derby at Anfield in the old First Division.  The two club met with completely opposite records in the early part of the season.  Liverpool were 3-1-1 and Everton 1-1-3.  Liverpool had won all 3 home matches and Everton had lost all 3 of their away trips.

Returning to Anfield for the first time was Peter Beardsley, once a title winner in red, he’d moved across Stanley Park for the blue of Everton.  He got a great reception from The Kop before the match, which was an illustration of, not only how they still held him in their hearts, but how they were still disappointed Graeme Souness had let him go.  Souness had taken over from Kenny Dalglish last season and the team had a distinctly different feel about it, with several youngsters beginning to make their mark.

One youngster, Steve McManaman, was involved in the opening goal barely 60 seconds after kick-off.  His play down the right saw Nicol cross the ball into the Everton box where Saunders was beaten to the ball.  Everton hadn’t fully cleared it when it fell to David Burrows, who’d joined the attack from left-back.  Twenty yards out, he took one touch and then fired a rasping shot which gave Southall no chance.  Liverpool were in front.

It was Burrows first goal for Liverpool and had come after just 48 seconds from the kick-off.  15 minutes later he was involved in the move which doubled the home side’s lead.  McManaman drifted out to the left to receive the pass from Burrows, and he found Walters hugging the left touchline.  Walters crossed to the far post where Dean Saunders, who’d replaced Beardsley at Anfield, took the ball down on his chest and then fired a low shot which beat Southall on his near post and Liverpool were 2 goals to the good.

Everton had more of the play during the first 45 minutes, but were unable to create many meaningful chances and Liverpool were comfortable for their lead at the break.  Midway through the second half Liverpool produced the sort of move they’d done every week under the previous regime.  McMahon and Houghton were involved in midfield and then Burrows was the outlet on the left.  As red shirts moved about to create space, Ray Houghton made one of his legendary late runs into space and Burrows had the simple task of laying the ball into his path and Houghton beat Southall at his near post.  It looked as if the home side would run riot, but they knew the points were safe and the opponent beaten. 

With still 15 minutes to be played it was quite appropriate for Beardsley to make his mark on the game.  His lob over the defence for Mike Newell gave the Everton striker a clear run on goal and his low shot beat Grobbelaar.  It was no more than a consolation and Liverpool were worthy winners.

Liverpool ended 6th in the League won by Leeds United.  They won the FA Cup to give Souness his only trophy in English football.  Everton finished 12th.

25th March 2006
LIVERPOOL   (1)   3   (Neville og 45, Garcia 47, Kewell 84)
EVERTON   (0)   1   (Cahill 61)

LIVERPOOL: Reina; Finnan, Hyypia, Carragher, Riise; Garcia, Gerrard, Sissoko, Alonso; Crouch (Morientes), Kewell (Warnock)

EVERTON: Wright; Naysmith, Stubbs, Weir, Hibbert; Neville, Osman, Cahill, Kilbane (van der Meyde); McFadden (Ferguson), Beattie

This particular derby was a intense encounter, but then many of them are.  Liverpool were 3rd in the table coming into the game with Everton down in 12th.  Since they lost 1-3 to Liverpool just after Christmas, Everton had been beaten just once in their last 11 games.  Liverpool had lost just once in their last 7 matches, with only Arsenal managing to score more than once against them.

The two derbies that season yielded 17 yellow cards and 4 red cards, with 2 in each match.  On this occasion it was Steven Gerrard and Andy van der Meyde who were given their marching orders.  Gerrard had been booked for kicking the ball away after a foul, but then scythed down Kevin Kilbane and left the referee with little option than to issue a second yellow.  Everton manager David Moyes admitted they didn’t play well against 10 men.  Liverpool kept using Crouch’s height as a target and Everton appeared increasingly inept at dealing with it.

Just on half-time, the deadlock was broken.  Xabi Alonso’s corner was headed into his own net by Phil Neville.  Early in the second half Liverpool doubled their lead.  Crouch got up above Stubbs to head the ball on for Luis Garcia to lob Richard Wright.  Tim Cahill grabbed a goal back for the visitors as he scored from Osman’s corner.  But then another Osman corner saw the second dismissal of the day when van der Meyde was sent-off for barging Alonso.

With six minutes remaining Harry Kewell finished things off as he accepted Steve Finnan’s pass and calmly beat Wright.  Liverpool ended the season in 3rd place with Everton staying in 12th.

13th March 2012
LIVERPOOL   (1)   3   (Gerrard 34, 51, 90)
EVERTON   (0)   0   

LIVERPOOL: Reina; Kelly, Skrtel, Carragher, Enrique; Henderson (Kuyt), Gerrard, Spearing, Downing; Carroll, Suarez

EVERTON: Howard; Hibbert, Jagielka, Distin, Baines; Coleman (Drenthe), Rodwell, Fellaini, Pienaar; Stracqualursi (Osman), Anichebe (Jelavic)

When the two met at Anfield in March 2012 they were both preparing for FA Cup Quarter-Final matches the following weekend.  In the league both were underachieving with Liverpool 7th and Everton two places below them.  It was 4 matches since Liverpool had won in the League, and you had to go back to the end of December to find a league win at Anfield for them, although this was only their 4th home match in the league since then.  During that time they had lifted the League Cup against Cardiff.  Everton, on the other hand, were in much better shape.  Unbeaten in their last 7, although they’d gone 4 games since their last victory away from home.

The night belonged to Steven Gerrard.  He became the second highest goalscorer for Liverpool in Merseyside derbies, behind Ian Rush.  He was certainly ‘captain fantastic’ on this night as he put in a performance to haul his teammates towards 3pts.  This was also the occasion of David Moyes 10th anniversary as Everton boss, but in all that time he still hadn’t beaten the neighbours.

Gerrard could’ve put Liverpool in front in the opening 10 minutes only for Howard to deny him.  But he wasn’t to be kept out for long and when Martin Kelly’s shot was blocked by Howard, the ball ran free and there was Gerrard to float the ball left-footed over the keeper and high into the net.  Liverpool had pressed and pressed and were good value for their lead at the break.

Suarez, busy as ever, gave Distin a torrid time down the right and cut back, but before he could get a shot in there was Gerrard to drive the ball home for a 2-goal lead early in the second half.  Liverpool were now rampant and keen to grind their opponents into the dirt.  Carroll and Kelly both went close but in injury time it was the skipper who crowned the night off. 

Substitute Drenthe slipped on the halfway line and Gerrard immediately pounced on the error.  He surged forward, with the visiting defence desperately retreating, and played the ball to his left for Suarez.  Suarez then cut back inside and laid the ball on for Gerrard to fire into the roof of the net and on his 400th Premier League appearance for his club, Gerrard had capped off a great night with a fine hat-trick.

Liverpool went onto beat Everton again in the FA Cup Semi-Final, before losing to Chelsea in the Final.  Everton finished higher in the league, though, as they ended 7th with Liverpool a place below them.

HEAD TO HEAD at Anfield

Matches: 94
Liverpool win: 40
Everton win: 23
Draws: 31

Liverpool goals: 142
Everton goals: 103

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Five Favourite Wins Against - Aston Villa at home

Continuing the series where I look back at my five favourite wins by Liverpool against their upcoming opponents.  This weekend Liverpool play against Aston Villa at Anfield.  Here are my five favourite wins from past encounters.

8th May 1979
LIVERPOOL   (2)   3   (A.Kennedy 1, Dalglish 38, McDermott 57)
ASTON VILLA   (0)   0  

LIVERPOOL: Clemence; Neal, Thompson, Hansen, A.Kennedy; Case, McDermott, Souness, R.Kennedy; Johnson, Dalglish

ASTON VILLA: Rimmer; Gidman, Evans, McNaught, Gibson; Swain, Mortimer, Gregory, Cowans; Deehan, Cropley (Linton)

Having been denied a treble of League Championships the season before, when Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest were Champions, Liverpool came back with a vengeance.  This was a record-breaking season for them and as Villa arrived at Anfield for the third-to-last game of the season, the title could be secured.

Villa were lying in 8th, 18pts behind their hosts but unbeaten in their previous six matches which included a win over Liverpool at Villa Park in April.  That defeat at Villa Park was the only one of 1979 for Liverpool as their unbeaten run had stretched to 13 games since they lost at Bristol City in mid-December.  Liverpool’s home form was stunning.  Only two sides had come away with a point and only 4 players had managed to breach the home defence.  In Liverpool’s 10 previous titles they had never reached more than 61pts, yet they were sitting on 62pts at the start of play.

In front of just over 50,000 fans, Liverpool took the lead inside the opening minute.  Terry McDermott’s cross was turned in by Alan Kennedy.  Kennedy had made his debut in August and was to become an integral part of one of the meanest defences British football has ever seen.  With half-time approaching and The Kop in great voice, Kenny Dalglish made it 2-0.  This season would represent his best return in front of goal with 21, but his contribution to the side was worth much more than that.  Villa battled valiantly but Terry McDermott finished things off just before the hour.

3-0 it was and Liverpool won their 11th title, with a new points record (68), a new record for fewest goals conceded at home (4) and best goal difference (+69).  They won 40pts from a maximum 42pts at home too.

Aston Villa finished 8th but would go onto win the title, themselves two years from here.

3rd May 1980
LIVERPOOL   (1)   4   (Johnson 3, 72, Cohen 50, Blake og, 78)
ASTON VILLA   (1)   1   (Cohen og, 26)

LIVERPOOL: Clemence; Neal, Thompson, Hansen, Cohen; Lee, McDermott, Souness, R. Kennedy; Johnson, Dalglish

ASTON VILLA: Rimmer; Swain, Blake, Ormsby, Gibson; Bremner, Heard, Linton (Morley), Cowans; Geddis, Shaw

The games were coming thick and fast for Liverpool ,after their marathon FA Cup Semi-Final with Arsenal.  It was their 4th game of the week, having met Arsenal on the Monday and then Thursday before this Saturday match.  In the league they had lost just twice since the end of February and had conceded just once in their last six at home.  Villa were in 5th, improving on twelve months earlier.

Liverpool were top of the table leading Manchester United on goal difference but with a game in hand.  On the same day United travelled to Leeds, knowing defeat would mean the title remained at Anfield.

Liverpool had won the title against Villa at home this time last year, and history was to repeat itself as David Johnson gave them an early lead.  Johnson had worked hard to try and gain a regular place and this season would prove to be his best at Anfield with 27 goals in all competitions.  Midway through the first half, the visitors got back on level terms.  They pushed forward and Ivor Linton’s shot was blocked by Avi Cohen, but the ball looped over Clemence into the net.  The first Israeli to play in English football, Cohen had struggled to force his way past Alan Kennedy at left back and today was his chance to impress, but this was not the impression he was looking to make.

Five minutes into the second half the ground rose as one to acclaim Cohen who made amends for his mistake in the first half.  As Liverpool attacked on the right of the area, Dalglish knocked the ball across to the left where Cohen arrived late and fired the ball into the corner past Rimmer.  Cohen was a huge favourite at Anfield.  He only made 24 appearances, but scored 2 goals – both at the same end in different halves of the same match!

As the game went into the final twenty minutes, Johnson scored a screamer.  He later explained that coach Ronnie Moran had been getting on his back about not scoring enough with his left foot, so he ‘lashed’ this in and it ‘hit the post and shot across the net’.  Liverpool complete the scoring when Villa defender, Noel Blake, put through his own net for a 4-1 win.

As the game finished, news filtered through that Manchester United had lost at Leeds so Liverpool were Champions once again, which more than made up for disappointment of not reaching the FA Cup Final.  Villa ended up in 7th.

3rd March 1996
LIVERPOOL   (3)   3   (McManaman 2, Fowler 5, 8)
ASTON VILLA   (0)   0

LIVERPOOL: James; McAteer, Wright (Redknapp), Babb, Scales, Jones; McManaman, Thomas, Barnes; Fowler, Collymore (Rush)

ASTON VILLA: Bosnich; Charles, Ehiogu, Southgate, Wright; Townsend, Farrelly, Scimeca, Staunton (Joachim); Yorke, Milosevic

These two were 3rd and 4th at the start of play desperately hoping to make ground on Manchester United and Newcastle.  Liverpool were unbeaten since November, a run of 12 games, including a 2-0 win at Villa Park.  For Aston Villa that home defeat to Liverpool was their only one of the year so far, a run of 8 matches.

This game will forever be remembered for the day Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman destroyed Villa inside eight minutes.  The game was over, as a contest, by then.  For the opening couple of minutes the visitors didn’t touch the ball.  Liverpool knocked the ball around comfortably from left to right, looking for an opening.  It came as Collymore’s left footed ball into the area from the right wing was flicked on by Fowler and McManaman, just inside the area, volleyed the ball first time past Bosnich and it all looked effortless.

Villa eventually got a touch but struggled to hold onto it as Liverpool were rampant.  Collymore forced Bosnich into a save, before Anfield witnessed one of the best finishes ever seen came with just 5 minutes gone.  Fowler, McAteer and McManaman formed a triangle on the right side of midfield and as McManaman played the ball forward to Fowler, the Liverpool striker had his back to goal with Staunton coming up close behind him.  Fowler flicked the ball behind him with his left foot, turned and left Staunton for dead.  As Fowler strode towards goal he took one more touch and then fired an unbelievable left foot strike from 25 yards which flew in past Bosnich’s right hand.  It was a stunning strike and one which will live long in the memory.  The turn was a modern-day equivalent of ‘the Cruyff turn’ and as if that wasn’t enough, the power and accuracy of the shot was almost too much.

It was Fowler’s 28th goal of the season and the place was bouncing.  But Liverpool weren’t about to settle back as their constant pass and move was in full evidence.  Villa just couldn’t get the ball, as the home sides movement was running rings round them.  Within minutes Jones, hugging the left touchline just inside his own half, played a ball through the Villa defence and Fowler was away again.  As he reached the edge of the area he again fired an unstoppable shot underneath Bosnich.  The angle seemed far too tight, yet the power of the shot was far too much for the Villa keeper.  Just eight minutes into the game and it was all over.  The play was devastating and Villa were completely stunned.

3-0 was the result and it was Liverpool’s third consecutive win.  Liverpool ended up in 3rd as Manchester United pipped Newcastle to the post.  Villa ended 4th.

6th September 2000
LIVERPOOL   (3)   3   (Owen 5, 14, 33)
ASTON VILLA   (0)   1   (Stone 83)

LIVERPOOL: Westerveld; Babbel, Hyypia, Henchoz, Carragher, Traore; Smicer (Barmby), Gerrard, Hamann; Owen, Heskey (Meijer)

ASTON VILLA: James; Stone,Southgate, Ehiogu, Barry; Taylor, Alpay (Ginola), Boateng (Hendrie); Nilis, Dublin, Merson

A visit early in the season for Villa this time but it was another one where they came away with nothing.  Villa’s two matches before this had ended in draws with Liverpool registering a win, a loss and a draw in their three.

A week earlier, Liverpool had surrendered a three goal lead to only gain a point at Southampton.  This time they weren’t so profligate.  Inside the opening five minutes Heskey powered his way down the right and his cross was turned in by Michael Owen.  Owen had scored twice at Southampton and was in a rich vein of goalscoring form.  Ten minutes later Smicer’s right-wing corner was missed by David James and one of the smallest men in the area, Owen, was able to head Liverpool into a 2-0 lead.  Then just after the half hour, a poor defensive header let Owen in and James charged off his line.  The former Liverpool keeper missed the ball again and Owen passed the ball into the empty net to complete his hat-trick.  6 goals in his last 3 games for Owen and it was a great start to the season.

Villa had claims for a penalty turned down and then in the second half Southgate cleared off the line after another James mistake.  Anfield had long become used to these errors from James, but this time they were to profit from them.  Steve Stone grabbed a consolation goal for the visitors but Liverpool were not to be denied.

Liverpool finished the season in 3rd behind Manchester United and Arsenal with Aston Villa back in 8th

22nd March 2009
LIVERPOOL   (3)   5   (Kuyt 8, Riera 33, Gerrard pen 39, 50, pen 65)
ASTON VILLA   (0)   0 

LIVERPOOL: Reina; Arbeloa (Agger), Skrtel, Carragher, Aurelio; Kuyt, Gerrard (N’Gog), Mascherano, Alonso (Lucas), Riera; Torres

ASTON VILLA: Friedel; Young, Davies, Cuellar; Milner, Barry, Reo-Coker (Guzan), Petrov, Young; Heskey (Agbonlahor), Carew (Gardner)

When Villa arrived at Anfield in 2009 both sides were in the top 5.  Liverpool were in 3rd just 4pts behind the leaders, Manchester United, who they’d beaten 4-1 the previous week.  Aston Villa were back in 5th and dreaming of possible Champions League places.

Liverpool were in sparkling form.  They’d beaten Real Madrid, 4-0 in the Champions League then Manchester United, 4-1, at Old Trafford and confidence was high.  Eight minutes in and they had a free-kick on the left edge of the area.  Steven Gerrard’s stunning strike clattered the bar and as it bounced down Dirk Kuyt caught it full on the volley to open the scoring.  Villa struggled to get into the game as Liverpool threatened to take them apart.  A long Pepe Reina kick bounced beyond the Villa defence and Albert Riera ran onto it and he also met it first time on the volley to fire past Friedel for a 2-0 lead.  Riera was then brought down in the box and Gerrard tucked away the penalty for a comfortable 3-0 half-time lead.

Villa had been playing some good football up to this match, but they were clearly second best on this occasion.  In the second half, Liverpool had another free-kick just outside the area.  Riera knocked the ball sideways to Gerrard who side-footed it into the net for his 2nd of the game.  Then midway through the half Torres was clear of the defence and as Friedel came out, he tapped the ball past the keeper just in time the challenge to bring him down.  Friedel actually turned his back to avoid the contact but Torres was in full flow and was brought down.  Friedel was sent-off, although Villa successfully appealed his red card.  Gerrard stepped up, sent Guzan the wrong way to complete his hat-trick.

Liverpool moved about Chelsea into 2nd and within a point of United.  This was the finest Liverpool team of recent years but in the end they were pipped to the title by 4pts.  Villa ended in 6th.

HEAD TO HEAD at Anfield

Matches: 89
Liverpool win: 55
Aston Villa win: 16
Draws: 18

Liverpool goals: 197
Aston Villa goals: 96