“Craig has been fantastic since he came in. He's good in the dressing room, he's good on the training pitch and he's good on the pitch. He's no problem whatsoever for us. That's another really good performance from him there.” Reds boss KENNY DALGLISH sings the praises of Craig Bellamy.
“The goals that we lost were pretty shocking. We shouldn't be losing goals like that at set-pieces. We have to look at that seriously on the training ground. The fans are calling on me to change this and that, but it's difficult for me if the boys can't make the passes.” Villa manager ALEX MCLEISH hits out at his players.
THE answer was staring the Holte End in the face.
Those Villa fans who unleashed a torrent of abuse in the direction of Stewart Downing should watch these 90 minutes again.
If they look closely they will see exactly why the winger was so desperate to make the move to Anfield last summer.
The taunts of greed towards Downing made little sense. The only thing the England international is guilty of is ambition.
The fact is Liverpool have it in abundance, while Villa are going nowhere fast. This was a game which laid bare the gulf between the sides.
One club has invested heavily in a bid to recapture past glory, the other has merely sold off the family silver with Downing joining the likes of Gareth Barry, James Milner and Ashley Young out of the exit door.
Liverpool have a manager in Kenny Dalglish who has brought unity and inspiration in equal measure. As a beaming Dalglish embraced his players after the final whistle and saluted the 3,000 packed into the away end, his opposite number Alex McLeish scuttled away down the tunnel with boos ringing in his ears.
The fellow Glaswegians played alongside each other for Scotland at the 1982 World Cup finals but the contrast between them yesterday couldn’t have been greater.
Liverpool will enjoy more emphatic victories this season but it’s hard to believe any will be as easy as this one in the Midlands. McLeish made a habit of thwarting the Reds during his time in charge at Birmingham City but there was no chance of a repeat.
Goals from the outstanding Craig Bellamy and Martin Skrtel inside the opening 15 minutes ensured Liverpool closed the gap on fourth placed Chelsea to just three points.
It was the perfect start to a hectic festive period which sees the Reds play five league games in 16 days before turning their attention to the FA Cup tie with Oldham. Standards must be maintained at Wigan on Wednesday night.
After a flying start Dalglish’s men threatened to run riot but it was a familiar tale with a glut of chances spurned. The curse of the woodwork continues with the Reds’ tally for the season now standing at 18.
A ruthless streak is still missing but it mattered little yesterday as Liverpool were so vastly superior in all departments.
Dalglish sprung a surprise with his team selection as he handed a first Premier League start to Jonjo Shelvey. It was a major show of faith in the 19-year-old, who was preferred to Dirk Kuyt, Maxi Rodriguez and Andy Carroll to play just behind Luis Suarez.
The boss was rewarded with an industrious display from Shelvey, who has vowed to use his successful loan spell with Blackpool to launch his Liverpool career.
Unsurprisingly, the teenager tired late on but his contribution will ensure he has a part to play over Christmas.
Shelvey was instrumental in the Reds’ 11th minute opener. Downing ignored the jeers to whip a decent corner into the box and Shelvey flicked it goalwards.
Suarez’s shot was blocked by Brad Guzan but Bellamy reacted smartly to tuck away his third goal since returning to Anfield from Manchester City.
Liverpool’s lack of potency from corners has been a hot topic of debate over the years but it seems all that set-piece work at Melwood is finally paid dividends.
A second corner four minutes after going in front brought a second goal.
The delivery from Bellamy was exceptional and Skrtel ensured it got the finish it deserved. The centre-back darted towards the near post and arrowed a header into the far corner.
In truth a subdued Villa Park crowd appeared resigned to their fate even when it was goalless and the early goals ensured the mood worsened.
Aside from baiting Downing, the only time the groans subsided was to greet a remarkable shimmy from Emile Heskey with ironic cheers.
The Reds’ task was undoubtedly made easier by the absence of Darren Bent and Gabriel Agbonlahor. Without them the hosts were toothless with Heskey and Nathan Delfouneso comfortably shackled by Skrtel and Daniel Agger. Their centre-back partnership is flourishing with just three goals conceded in the last seven games together.
Skrtel is enjoying a rich vein of form and the Slovakian is arguably Liverpool’s most improved player of 2011.
Charles N’Zogbia went close from distance on a couple of occasions but Pepe Reina was never seriously troubled as the top flight’s most miserly defence collected a sixth league clean sheet of the campaign.
With Bellamy terrorising Villa down the left on his return to the side and Downing impressing on the right, Liverpool had too much pace, energy and invention for the hosts to handle.
The stick from the same supporters who voted him their Player of the Year last season appeared to inspire Downing who served up one of his best displays for the Reds.
Bellamy ensured there was no let-up for an overworked Villa backline. The Welshman was a constant menace but for the third successive match he picked up a mystery booking.
This time he was carded after Alan Hutton ran into him. Bellamy laughed it off but there’s no question he’s suffering from referees making decisions based on reputations.
After a lull before the break there was more urgency from the Reds in the second half. The passing and movement was slicker with Villa cut open almost at will.
Suarez will still be trying to work out how he didn’t get his name on the scoresheet. Some of his touches were sublime but there was no end product. After dancing past Richard Dunne and James Collins, he struck the underside of the bar with the net gaping.
Suarez was soon cursing his luck once again. Downing’s vision sent him scampering through and he coolly weighed up his options before executing a delightful chip.
Guzan, who kept the score down with fine saves from Glen Johnson and Shelvey, could only stand and watch as it looped over him and bounced back off the post.
The Uruguayan’s frustration was clear but it was another dazzling display, especially considering what’s hanging over him.
Suarez had been forced to miss training during the week to attend the FA disciplinary hearing into allegations of racist abuse. A verdict is likely to be known tomorrow.
As for Downing, this was an afternoon to savour. These are two clubs going in opposite directions and this hopelessly one-sided contest merely emphasised that he made the right decision to head north.
ASTON VILLA (4-4-2): Guzan, Hutton, Dunne, Collins, Warnock, Albrighton, Petrov, Delph (Weimann 80), N'Zogbia, Delfouneso, Heskey (Bannan 57). Not used: Marshall, Clark, Cuellar, Johnson, Burke.
LIVERPOOL (4-4-1-1): Reina, Johnson, Skrtel, Agger, Enrique, Bellamy (Kuyt 88), Adam, Henderson, Downing, Shelvey (Carragher 83), Suarez (Carroll 74). Not used: Doni, Rodriguez, Coates, Kelly.
GOALS: Bellamy 11, Skrtel 15.
CARDS: N’Zogbia (Aston Villa); Adam, Bellamy (Liverpool).
REFEREE: Peter Walton.