GERARD HOULLIER has long since divided opinion at Anfield.
Many remember him as the manager who landed an unprecedented cup treble and snapped up the likes of Sami Hyypia, Didi Hamann and Gary McAllister.
For others he’s the boss who wasted a glorious chance to end the club’s long wait for the title by frittering away cash on misfits like El Hadji Diouf, Salif Diao and Bruno Cheyrou.
Last night everyone was in agreement. The Frenchman and his Aston Villa team were the perfect guests.
Houllier’s emotional return six and a half years after he parted company with Liverpool turned into a personal nightmare.
On paper a Reds side without Fernando Torres, Steven Gerrard or Jamie Carragher looked vulnerable. Instead they ran riot as a dismal Villa side were swept aside with consummate ease.
The welcome for him was warm but what followed will have chilled Houllier to the core. His team were outclassed and outfought in every department.
The stand-in strikeforce of David Ngog and Ryan Babel got Liverpool off to a flyer and Maxi Rodriguez’ sweet strike wrapped up the points in the second half.
It was the perfect night for Roy Hodgson with the performance going some way to backing up the manager’s claim that he’s finally getting the Reds playing in the style he wants.
Villa were abject but they still had to be put to the sword and that was done swiftly and with a swagger.
This was a fourth successive home triumph and lifted Liverpool back into the top eight and within sight of the European places. The Reds are finally looking up rather than over their shoulder.
Now Hodgson’s challenge is to get his players delivering on a consistent basis away from the comforts of Anfield.
Torres’ absence after his wife Olalla went into labour earlier in the day handed a chance to Babel and how he grabbed it.
The Dutchman had impressed Hodgson with his efforts in Bucharest last Thursday and he continued where he had left off during a lively opening.
Raul Meireles and the outstanding Lucas stamped their authority on proceedings in the middle of the park and the Reds started at a tempo Villa simply couldn’t live with.
At White Hart Lane eight days earlier Liverpool had failed to turn pressure into goals and paid the price. This time they were ruthless.
Dirk Kuyt had already gone close before the opener deservedly arrived in the 14th minute.
Martin Skrtel, on his 100th appearance for the Reds, rose to send Meireles’ corner goalwards with a thumping header and Ngog nodded it home from close range.
It was the Frenchman’s eighth goal of the campaign but his first since September.
Two minutes later the Reds were in dreamland. Lucas demonstrated his growing prowess at Anfield with a delightful clipped pass for Babel to race on to.
There was still plenty to do but Babel made it look easy as he hooked a shot across former Reds keeper Brad Friedel and into the far corner.
The celebratory double somersault which followed was almost as stylish as the finish.
Confidence oozed through the Reds’ veins and Sotirios Kyrgiakos should have added a third when he nodded wastefully over.
The only danger to Pepe Reina apart from frost bite was sloppy errors from his back four. Both Skrtel and Paul Konchesky were guilty but a dismal Villa weren’t good enough to take advantage.
It wasn’t only the quality of the Reds’ attacking play but also the work-rate which stood out as the visitors were hustled and harried into conceding possession.
Having been booed off by their fans at the break, Houllier’s side briefly threatened in the second half with Reina saving bravely at the feet of Gabriel Agbonlahor.
It was a record breaking night for Reina as he became the quickest keeper in the club’s history to clock up 100 league clean sheets.
This was his 198th game and he comfortably beat the record previously held by Ray Clemence on 217. The Spaniard will have had few easier nights.
The goalkeeper played his part in helping the Reds deliver the decisive blow with a blistering counter attack in the 55th minute.
Reina’s throw found Rodriguez who in turn released Ngog down the left. The rookie striker picked out Rodriguez in the box and he made no mistake with a clinical finish past Friedel.
The only criticism was that Liverpool should have gone on to improve a goal difference which is now finally in the black for the first time this season.
Glen Johnson was denied by a great save from Friedel before the right-back lashed another decent opening over the bar.
Kyrgiakos then saw his header cleared off the line by Jonathan Hogg. Villa were lucky to escape without a hiding.
With Houllier’s side boasting just one win in 10 games and only just above the drop zone, it looks like being a long, harsh winter for the Frenchman.
The Kop chanting his name in the closing stages last night will have briefly lifted his spirits, an honour not yet bestowed on the current occupier of the Anfield hot seat.
Hodgson still faces a battle to win over plenty of doubters. But more nights like this and the plaudits will come his way.