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Dec 15, 2012

Villa's young ones in Anfield ambush

The victorious manager came into the Anfield press room, sprinkled superlatives about his young players and reflected on a resounding endorsement of his philosophy. A few months into his reign, this was his finest day at a new club. It may have been a scenario Brendan Rodgers envisaged but it was Paul Lambert who, offered the opportunity to say 'I told you so', had to find a way to avoid sounding smug.

It was a task he managed successfully, just as his side navigated a game on Merseyside with admirable aplomb. When Aston Villa kicked off at the start of a daunting series of fixtures, a Christmas in the relegation zone appeared plausible. Ninety minutes later, they had secured a result that delighted them, deflated Rodgers and leaves Liverpool marooned in the wrong half of the table, just two places above their conquerors.

Near neighbours in the table have similarities that extend beyond their managerial revolutionaries. At both, albeit in different ways, the season has been dominated by talk of strikers, the scoring Luis Suarez and the sidelined Darren Bent. This was about an altogether different attacker. There has been a focus on the forwards Liverpool didn't sign, but this was determined by the target man Villa identified.

"Christian Benteke was outstanding," Rodgers said, unprompted. "Benteke has been unbelievable," Lambert offered, when invited to praise his match-winner. Scorer of two goals, creator of the other and tormentor of Martin Skrtel, the Premier League's foremost Didier Drogba impersonator delivered a tour de force. When Lambert bought him from Genk, there were suggestions that a £7 million fee for an unproven player was excessive. Now it appears a bargain. A brace took his tally for Villa to eight but, unlike the exiled and injured Bent, his game is about far more than simply scoring.

A focus on his imposing physique can often deflect attention from his technical ability. Here it was very evident. A drilled opener followed a square pass from Brett Holman, the only outfield starter over 24. "We gave the ball away in our half and then our positioning wasn't great and we didn't close the ball down," said Rodgers, who provided his own analysis of each of the Villa goals.

"The goals were brilliant," Lambert added. "The second especially." It was not so much a one-two as the more elongated version, a two-two involving a 22-year-old and a 21-year-old, the strikers combining beautifully. Andreas Weimann released Benteke and ran on to the return ball, played inventively and incisively with a backheel, to drive his shot past Pepe Reina; perhaps to blame for the first, the keeper could be exonerated for the second. "We never tracked the runners," rued Rodgers.

"For the third goal, we gave the ball away in our own half. There's no doubt it was very much self-inflicted." Indeed, Joe Allen's pass to Joe Cole was imprecise. Holman robbed the replacement and Benteke powered clear before defeating Reina. It made a mockery of the pre-match statistics, that Villa were the division's lowest scorers and had only struck four times on their travels. The manner of the goals also indicated that Liverpool, despite having arguably their preferred midfield trio of Allen, Lucas Leiva and Steven Gerrard, were affording their defence too little protection.

"It was a bad day at the office," Rodgers said. "We weren't at it in terms of our intensity and pressure. I didn't see that coming." Indeed, the theory that Liverpool are capable of surging through the division to finish in the top four was rather debunked. Liverpool began with pace and were in the ascendancy. Even then, however, there was a caveat. Chances were created but, their manager admitted, their decision-making was not good enough. Villa weathered the storm, their inexperienced defenders demonstrating their ability - one tackle Nathan Baker made on Jonjo Shelvey was particularly important - and were only denied a clean sheet when Gerrard diverted Glen Johnson's shot in. Rodgers was rightly aggrieved that Liverpool, yet to be awarded a penalty this season, were denied another when Ciaran Clark tugged Daniel Agger down but accepted Villa were worthy winners.

"The whole performance was fabulous," Lambert said, reflecting on the achievements of players plucked from the reserves, the lower leagues and, in the case of the Belgian Benteke, some of Europe's less glamorous divisions. "If you don't give somebody an opportunity, how do you know?" the Scot asked. "That's what we have done. [Ashley] Westwood has been at Crewe and you wouldn't think Matty Lowton has just come from Sheffield United." Or, indeed, that Benteke was playing in Belgium four months ago. Villa's last win at Anfield was secured by Ashley Young. This was more a case of the young ones prevailing.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Christian Benteke - Outstanding in the air, capable of scoring from 25 yards and supplier of the second with a lovely backheel, Benteke was the most powerful player on the pitch but also perhaps the most inventive. His willingness to run the channels is a reason why he is such a fine provider for Weimann.

LIVERPOOL VERDICT: The facts are that they had plenty of efforts on goal but they seemed to run out of ideas after Villa's third goal. The midfield is often the strongest department of a Rodgers team but with Lucas not yet back to his best and Gerrard and Allen both losing form, they have concerns there. There is a case for giving Jordan Henderson a start in place of Allen. Shelvey's outing as a winger, meanwhile, only lasted 45 minutes and Liverpool could do with the transfer window opening to allow them to strengthen. In the short term, they missed the injured Jose Enrique.

ASTON VILLA VERDICT: Excellent. Young players are rising to the responsibility. Baker and Clark flourished at the back, Ashley Westwood continues to impress in midfield and Benteke was brilliant. The 3-5-2 formation seems to suit Lambert's players but the result and the performance both bode badly for the big names, like Bent, Stephen Ireland and Charles N'Zogbia, who can't get in the team.

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