Johnson Kyrgiakos Skrtel Konchesky
Kuyt Meireles Lucas Maxi
Just like the last home match, a comfortable 3-0 victory against sub-standard opposition. This is a trend I could get used to.
After a scrappy opener, two quick-fire goals by Liverpool's two strikers settled matters early on. The first was from Ngog, a brave diving header after Skrtel's knocked Meireles corner into a dangerous area. The Portuguese midfielder's set-piece delivery was excellent today, and one would hope he continues taking them after Gerrard returns. The second, barely 120 seconds later, came after a one-touch counter brilliantly finished by Babel. Meireles started the move, Lucas' ball over the top found an arguably "onside" Babel, and the Dutchman smartly turned Warnock, allowing the ball to roll across his body before blasting past Friedel.
From there, Liverpool were on cruise control with Villa unable to challenge the Lucas/Meireles midfield. Restricted to one chance – Collins out-jumping Skrtel on a corner in the 22nd but unable to direct his header on target – the away side posed next to no threat in open play. Youngsters Hogg and Clark could barely get a touch, while Downing's crosses were directed straight at Reina all match long. Liverpool were content to soak up everything, nearly adding a third in the 37th when Meireles' deep cross found Babel, who threateningly volleyed wide. Right before halftime, ESPN's camera's caught Hodgson in mid-scream. His instructions? "No goals against us!" Surprise, surprise.
And Liverpool continued in that vein in the second half, completely happy to rely on the counter and keep a clean sheet. However, Villa were slightly more dangerous, removing the ineffective Clark for a second striker in Delfouneso. The switch to 4-4-2 led to Villa's lone shot on target, with Reina wonderfully keeping out Agbonlahor's point-blank sliding effort in the 53rd.
Two minutes later, Liverpool reasserted dominance and crushed Villa's infinitesimal hope. Reina started the move after catching another poor Downing cross, finding Maxi with a pin-point throw. The Argentinean spread it wide for Ngog and continued his run into the box, in perfect position to slam the Frenchman's cutback into the far corner.
From there, Liverpool were happy to concede possession and defend deep, as has been their wont this season, but Villa never threatened as we're accustomed to. Johnson had two chances at a fourth on the break, while Kyrgiakos' header from a corner was cleared off the line 15 minutes from full-time. Aurelio replaced Maxi while Cole came on for Kuyt as Liverpool killed the remaining minutes, while Villa simply waited for the final reprieve whistle reprieve.
As against West Ham, it's reassuring to see Liverpool uncontested and dominant at home. Three goals and a clean sheet mean the side's now up to 8th and with a positive goal differential for the first time this season. Writing Lucas and Meireles 'bossed the midfield' does little justice to their performance, and I'd hope that Hodgson keeps faith with the pairing when Gerrard's fit, moving the captain into his familiar role behind Torres. I'm biased, but yet again Lucas was my man of the match. Ngog worked hard all game and scored another excellent goal, while Babel repaid the manager's faith in him. Liverpool could have played Kuyt up front and Cole, Jovanovic, or Aurelio on the flanks. And that clean sheet marks Reina's 100th, the quickest to that number in Liverpool's history. After 198 games, blanking the opposition at an average of every other game. It's only fair he marked the milestone with the captain's armband.
But despite all the positives, winning against lesser opposition at Anfield hasn't been the problem. Continuing to win, building confidence and consistency, is nothing to scoff at. That Liverpool did it without Gerrard, Carragher, and Torres – missing because of the birth of his second child – is also an excellent sign. But Liverpool still need to do it away from their own castle.