Trio of mistakes cost Liverpool dear
And to think Liverpool had come to the conclusion that the problem was drawing at Anfield. They were held at home seven times last season, a series of frustrations that served as an explanation why the title eluded them. Yet this was altogether costlier than the stalemates with Stoke, Fulham and West Ham. Given Aston Villa's subdued start to the season, it was equally unexpected.
Liverpool's home defeats occur about as often as Jamie Carragher is caught offside; tonight Anfield witnessed both, the latter as part of a desperate attempt to salvage something.
Instead, it proved a first home league defeat since December 2007, when Carlos Tevez was Manchester United's match-winner. Now, 32 games later, Anfield's status as a fortress was again endangered by Lucas Leiva's own goal, a Curtis Davies header and Ashley Young's penalty. It means Rafa Benitez's side, beaten just twice last season, have already suffered as many setbacks in this embryonic campaign.
Villa, beaten by Wigan and Rapid Vienna in their first two fixtures, have now recorded a first victory. "We've won at Anfield and the players were just brilliant," said Martin O'Neill. "I thought we played really well, very well indeed. I just felt we were excellent. I thought we defended very strongly, in the midfield as well and the overall effort of the team was there for all to see. But we can play as well."
They proved as much, but it was the sort of occasion when thoughts turned to past Reds; to Xabi Alonso, ensconced in Madrid, and to Brad Friedel, verging on the unbeatable in the Villa goal. Alonso's absence was telling throughout the match, with a lack of penetrative passing from the centre of midfield, but especially damaging for the opening goal.
As if understudying Alonso and Javier Mascherano for the past two seasons was not a stiff enough task, Lucas now finds himself deputising for the most expensive midfielder in Liverpool's history, Alberto Aquilani, while the injured Italian awaits his debut. Under the circumstances, then, there is an inevitability about unflattering comparisons. Sadly for Lucas, this was not a day to increase his undersized fan club (founder member: Senor Rafael Benitez); rather, it furthered the impression that "much-maligned" has become a prefix to his name.
Yet Lucas had acquitted himself commendably in Liverpool's first two fixtures of the season. On 34 minutes, however, Ashley Young's free kick was directed towards Jose Reina. It was only when Lucas intervened that the Spaniard was beaten, the header diverting the ball towards the top corner. To compound the error, Lucas had the conceded the free kick himself.
Villa's second owed much to the other No.21, a player who may be held in similarly low esteem by his supposed supporters as Lucas. With Stephen Warnock set to join, Nicky Shorey's Villa future may consist of expanding his experience of substitutes' benches. Yet he presented a threat going forward and an expertly-delivered corner brought the goal on the strike of half-time.
The award of the corner was disputed by Reina, who was booked for kicking the ball away, though Steve Sidwell's shot was deflected wide by Martin Skrtel. The resulting set-piece was delivered by Shorey and met by Davies, rising above Carragher and Fernando Torres at the near post.
The latter scored Liverpool's goal, halving the deficit for two minutes before the concession of a third. It came courtesy of a low cross from the overlapping Emiliano Insua that Torres stabbed in off the underside of the bar.
Cue a comeback? Not exactly. Steven Gerrard, sent off the last time Villa won at Anfield, conceded a penalty this, with a rash challenge on Nigel Reo-Coker. Young calmly dispatched it.
"Clearly the team as a team has to improve," said Benitez. "It depends upon the senior players to take responsibility. We made too many mistakes at crucial moments. We were not playing well; we were giving the ball away against a team that is good at counter-attacking." His hope is that Lucas will not be the scapegoat: "We have to be fair. Gerrard gave [away] the penalty. Each player will have to analyse things within the game."
There was plenty of scope for analysis for the watching trio of Fabio Capello, Franco Baldini and Stuart Pearce, who saw 11 Englishmen, eight of them on the winning side. Yet it was a game when Reo-Coker outshone Gerrard and when Davies outperformed Carragher. And it was a game when Liverpool could feel nostalgic for the days of draws at Anfield.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Brad Friedel - Even at 38, the American remains capable of astonishing displays of shot-stopping. Dirk Kuyt, Glen Johnson and Torres were all provided with evidence of his agility, but the best save of all thwarted Gerrard. Friedel, lying on his back, somehow used his right boot to turn a close-range shot over the bar.
LIVERPOOL VERDICT: It is easy to attribute defeat to the loss of Alonso but after an encouraging start, but a fractious Liverpool side did too little for the rest of the first-half. The indefatigable Kuyt, who struck the post, appeared the likeliest man to bring them back into the game.
ASTON VILLA VERDICT: O'Neill played four midfielders at Anfield in March and conceded five goals. Selecting a quintet appeared a damage-limitation exercise, but it proved a masterstroke. Reo-Coker, in particular, was outstanding, while Stilian Petrov came in for plenty of praise from his manager.