There were a host of new faces in new places when Liverpool played Aston Villa at Anfield on Saturday.
Liverpool striker Mario Balotelli played his first home game for his new team, Lazar Markovic started a game for the first time in his Reds career, and Adam Lallana made his long-awaited debut.
On the other side, Aston Villa midfielder Tom Cleverley made his first appearance for the club, following his deadline-day loan switch from Manchester United.
The four players’ presences gave Liverpool-Aston Villa the semblance of a debutantes’ ball. In the end, Cleverley sang and danced with the most joy, as Aston Villa earned a shock 1-0 win over Liverpool.
The recent international break proved costly to Liverpool. Injuries to Daniel Sturridge, Emre Can and Joe Allen and Raheem Sterling’s heavy workload forced Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers to trust Balotelli, Markovic and Lallana to lead the attack (as strikers and attacking midfielder, respectively) in a diamond formation — when he might not have otherwise. Rodgers’ gamble didn’t pay off, as the trio struggled to link up in the final third and carve openings into Aston Villa’s dogged defense.
Balotelli largely cut a frustrated figure, as Aston Villa defenders Philippe Senderos and Nathan Baker used brute force to contain him for much of his 70-minute shift. Rickie Lambert took Balotelli’s place on the front line for the final 20 minutes of the game.
Lallana suffered a knee injury during the Reds’ preseason visit to Boston. The 26-year-old played 60 minutes against Aston Villa but lacked a cutting-edge and failed to stamp his authority on the game before Sterling took his place. It wasn’t surprising, as Lallana hadn’t played a competitive game since June 24 — the day England’s 2014 FIFA World Cup journey ended.
Markovic went 70 minutes before Rodgers replaced him with Fabio Borini. Markovic was positive and lively, but his final pass or shot lacked the quality to do serious damage to Aston Villa.
The three Liverpool new boys could only watch in agony, as Cleverley and Aston Villa emerged victorious. Cleverly’s performance was understated but effective. The 25-year-old was tidy in possession and shined defensively, closing down space in the midfield and helping to organize his teammates amid a steady onslaught of Liverpool attacks. When Cleverley was replaced by Carlos Sanchez in the 86th minute, his new teammates welcomed him to the bench with open arms while fans serenaded him. Perhaps they were returning the favor for the song Cleverley sang at his initiation Friday.
Aston Villa is enjoying a dream start to the 2014-15 season, and it was always going to be a tough task for Balotelli, Lallana and Markovic to slice them open. Transfers and injuries have disrupted their season so far, and it would be a fantasy to expect them to click right away. By the time Sterling, Lambert and former outcast Borini came on, Aston Villa had scored, was riding a wave of confidence and dug in its heels.
Having been liberated from the “negativity” and spotlight at Manchester United, Cleverley did what he does best: work hard, make safe passes and be a cog in a machine that was working fine on this particular day.