Liverpool-Aston Villa Verdict: Reds Fall Flat Before Champions League Return

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Dejan Lovren and Gabriel AgbonlahorIt went wrong for Liverpool when it faced Aston Villa on Saturday at Anfield.

The Reds lost 1-0 to Aston Villa in their first Premier League game following the international break and last one before they make a long-awaited return to the UEFA Champions League.

It didn’t all go wrong, just the most important parts, as far as Liverpool is concerned: the beginning of the game and the end result.

Aston Villa raided Anfield for the third time in three years, taking points back home and leaving Liverpool to wonder, “what happened?”

In short, Aston Villa beat the Reds at their own game … for a while. The visitors then stepped back into character and played their part to near perfection.

Liverpool broke into the Premier League elite last season by starting games quickly, but Aston Villa had a decisive advantage in the opening exchanges. The Reds were defending chaotically at the outset, and it was no surprise when it took the lead after nine minutes. Gabby Agbonlahor did the honors, bundling home Philippe Senderos’ header from point-blank range. Agbonlahor’s goal stunned Liverpool, and Aston Villa had at least two more clear chances to add to its lead during the next ten minutes. By the time Liverpool switched on and wrested control of the game, Aston Villa had already reverted to type.

But this wasn’t the Aston Villa of 2012-13 or 2013-14, which flirted with relegation only to escape at the end. This Aston Villa burst out of the gate, taking seven points from its first three Premier League games in 2014-15. A trip to Liverpool posed the new Aston Villa its stiffest test yet, and Paul Lambert’s group emerged with its burgeoning reputation enhanced.

Liverpool, on the other hand, never matched the lofty standards it set both in the second half of last season and in its most recent game — a 3-0 win over Tottenham on Aug. 31. The international break halted any momentum generated by the win over Spurs. When the Reds re-assembled this week, they were without injured striker Daniel Sturridge at the moment they were entering a hectic, game-packed period of the season.

Rodgers rested Raheem Sterling, choosing to gamble on a trio of new signings — Mario Balotelli Adam Lallana and Lazar Markovic — to lead the attack. It didn’t work. Liverpool dominated possession for 70 minutes but lacked the cohesion and invention in the final third that was necessary to break down the self-confident Villans.

The new faces up front didn’t click in their first outing together, and Liverpool’s midfield wasn’t impressive either. Captain Steven Gerrard neither inspired nor threatened with his free kicks. Jordan Henderson who, like Sterling, played 180 minutes for England in less than a week, was missing his normal drive from the center.

Philippe Coutinho returned to the starting lineup but he played too deep to trouble Aston Villa with his vision and passing for the first hour. It was no coincidence that Liverpool’s best scoring chance — when Coutinho hit the post in the 81st minute — came after Rodgers pushed him out to an advanced position on the flank and deployed Sterling centrally.

For too long, Liverpool was toothless, instead of ruthless, in and around the Aston Villa goal, and the statistics make for grim reading: the Reds took 18 shots but only put one on target.

Aston Villa out-ran and out-muscled Liverpool in the beginning before cancelling out its host tactically for large swathes of the game. Agbonlahor’s goal turbo-charged the Villans psychologically, leaving Liverpool at the mercy of its technical advantage, which was absent on the day.

The Reds will look to put things right when they host Bulgaria’s Ludogorets in their Champions League opener Tuesday. The quality and sense of familiarity should return by then, but the damage is already done.

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