It may have been his innate optimism and the requirements of his job that prompted Brendan Rodgers to assert that second place is not beyond Liverpool but his players picked the wrong day to expose the prediction to ridicule. In truth it was Aston Villa, 17th at the start of play, who mocked the pre-match form with a performance that stunned Anfield and perhaps their own support.
Led by the inspired Belgium forward Christian Benteke and the accomplished Barry Bannan in central midfield, Villa capitalised on a careless Liverpool display to produce an impressive win to strengthen Paul Lambert's claims of improvement from his young team.
Liverpool could have been lulled into a false sense of security, for this was not the Villa of one win in their previous 16 away games. The visitors lived dangerously at times certainly, with their three-pronged central defence frequently denying Liverpool with a final touch or a kind ricochet, but in terms of absorbing pressure and striking on the break, Lambert's side delivered to perfection.
Leading goalscorer Benteke tested José Reina in the opening minute with a header from Bannan's free-kick, while the Liverpool goalkeeper made a fine sliding tackle to prevent Andreas Weimann converting Brett Holman's through ball. Otherwise it was all Liverpool pressure and no end product as Luis Suárez endured one of those frustrating games on the ball and precious little support from those around him.
Liverpool's best player was the often maligned Stewart Downing, operating out of position at left-back against his former club.
Brad Guzan was forced into an early save when Downing's cross struck Eric Lichaj and deflected towards his own goal. But with Steven Gerrard stepping on the ball when well-placed, the ball striking Suárez's heel as he attempted to run clear on to a Jonjo Shelvey pass, and Joe Allen miscontrolling when free inside the Villa area, the hosts lacked the composure to make their possession count.
And Liverpool were punished in emphatic style by Benteke. Suárez lost possession inside the Liverpool half to enable Villa to build patiently down the left. Holman turned play inside to Benteke and, with no defender coming close, the Belgian found the bottom corner from 22 yards via the inside of Reina's right-hand post.
Weimann should have doubled Villa's advantage minutes later when released inside the Liverpool area by Glen Johnson's weak defensive header but, though he lobbed the advancing Reina, his effort landed on the roof of the Kop net. There was no reprieve for Liverpool when Weimann found his range five minutes before the interval and finished off a stunning team move.
Villa's forwards will take the plaudits for their four passes that pierced the Liverpool defence and saw the Austrian forward sweep home Benteke's exquisite back-heel across the penalty area. The credit runs much deeper, however, with Bannan, Ashley Westwood and others involved in an 18-touch move before Weimann struck.
As the goalscorer and creator celebrated in one corner, Westwood turned the other way to applaud the team-mates behind. It was the first time since 21 January that Villa had scored more than once away from home in the Premier League.
Liverpool inevitably laid siege to Guzan's goal in the second-half, and were denied a clear penalty when Daniel Agger was hauled to the floor by Ciaran Clark at a corner, but went further behind before they gathered momentum. Holman easily dispossessed Joe Cole, a half-time replacement for Shelvey, to release Benteke against a defence who could not deal with his upper-body strength and directness all afternoon. He waltzed inside Martin Skrtel, Allen bounced off the striker, and Benteke beat Reina convincingly for his eighth Villa goal of the season.
Gerrard grabbed a late goal when he diverted Johnson's drive into the bottom corner via his chest and Benteke was fortunate his outstanding afternoon was not spoiled by a red card when he received only a yellow for pushing Johnson in the face.
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