Sunday, March 22, 2009

Liverpool Rip apart Villa

Liverpool are breathing down Manchester United's necks in the Premier League title race after destroying fifth-placed Aston Villa 5-0.

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 yesterday 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.

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