Liverpool's recent revival gathered pace as hung on to defy a spirited second-half display from Aston Villa to run out 2-0 winners at Villa Park on Saturday afternoon.
The Reds' were the better side in the first 45 minutes and took a deserved lead when Jordan Henderson's cross found Fabio Borini whose perfectly-timed run saw him convert past Brad Guzan, but they failed to take advantage of the rest of their chances.
In the second-half, Villa should have made them rue missed chances as they ramped up the pressure. Paul Lambert's looked to be nearing an equaliser, but after Simon Mignolet did excellently to keep out Christian Benteke, substitute Rickie Lambert sealed the three points with a fine strike with less than quarter-of-an-hour to go.
Brendan Rodgers made just one change to the side he fielded against Sunderland the week before, with Steven Gerrard's hamstring injury keeping him out and Raheem Sterling returning from a mid-season break and the fluidity within those players selected in the 3-4-2-1 formation showed.
The visitors dominated the early stages and had an early opportunity through the lively Philippe Coutinho from a set-piece inside two minutes. Jordan Henderson's corner fell straight for the Brazilian at the far post, but he could only send his volley wide of Guzan's goal.
Up the other end, Martin Skrtel's only real blemish all game almost gifted the opportunity for Christian Benteke to end Villa's goal drought. Alan Hutton sent in a teasing cross from the right-hand side and the Slovakian sliced his clearance, but was fortunate to see it fall towards the grateful grasp of Simon Mignolet rather than towards the feet of the lurking Belgian centre forward.
Liverpool were starting to cause problems through the centre as their superior firepower looked to cause problems to a shaky Villa back-line. Fabio Borini made a fine run and was spotted by Alberto Moreno, but the Italian could not bring it under his control and had to look the ball roll beyond him and out of play.
But, it was Borini who opened the scoring just over 10 minutes later. From a throw-in, Villa's back-line were caught sleeping as Lazar Markovic's quick pass into the inside channel found Henderson, who whipped a stunning cross into Borini who stabbed past Guzan for the game's opening goal, despite shouts for offside.
Villa looked for a response, but the impeccable back three of Emre Can, Martin Skrtel and Mamadou Sakho did well to quell their threat in the first-half. The Frenchman in particular was excellent in coming across to dispossess Hutton, who served as the home side's main attacking threat throughout the 90 minutes.
The visitors too had their chances. Coutinho's dummy of a long ball out from the back allowed Moreno to surge into space down the left before returning the ball to the Brazilian who sent a fantastic pass across the length of the pitch to Markovic. The Serbian held up the ball before spotting Coutinho making a well-timed run in between the two centre-backs and picked him out with a fine cross, but Coutinho's header failed to trouble Guzan.
Regardless, Liverpool should have gone into the break with a two-goal lead. Lucas Leiva's header in the middle of the pitch somehow found it's way through the slow to react defence and left Raheem Sterling one-on-one, but his finishing was lacking. Rather than drill a low effort past Guzan, the 20-year-old went for an extravagant chip - but failed to pull it off, wasting a fine opportunity to put the game past Lambert's struggling side.
As the half-time whistle, Villa began to take some encouragement as they improved in possession and got in behind Liverpool's defence more regularly, Carlos Sanchez' swerving 40-yard effort forcing Mignolet into a sharp re-think and Tom Cleverley troubling the back-line but only managing to divert his lob over the crossbar.
After the interval they began to dominate and a goal to level the game looked certain. Yet the Reds still had their chances, after Borini hesitated too long and allowed Nathan Baker to track back and thwart his shot - Martin Skrtel hit the post from the following corner, as Guzan got vital fingertips to the effort to prevent it finding the bottom corner.
Villa were perhaps lucky to have 11-men on the pitch when Sanchez, who had fouled numerous times beforehand, caught Sterling with a high foot but as the hour mark approached, the hosts began to stir.
The introduction of recent £3.2 million signing Carles Gil lifted the supporters, and his new teammates, as they adopted a renewed sense of belief. He and Andi Weimann added a forward-thinking emphasis to Lambert's side and it should have paid off.
Fabian Delph hooked a ball high up into the box and the knockdown found Benteke at the near post and he spun towards goal and fired goalwards, but Simon Mignolet somehow kept his compatriot's powerful effort out with a strong palm and he was quick to his feet to punch clear from Weimann's header back into the six-yard box.
The pressure was sustained, but Liverpool did well to deal with it. Nathan Baker should have done better from close-range, fluffing his lines as he completely missed the ball before Slovakian centre-back Skrtel did superbly to hook a goalbound effort away from the box.
Up the other end, goals almost came in the rare form of Lucas - whose curling 25-yard effort forced Guzan to get down quick to his left and palm the shot round the post, but Villa remained vigilant.
Eventually, Villa's resistance was broken and it was inspired substitute Rickie Lambert who brought the goods. After raising eyebrows with the switch, the 32-year-old proved doubters wrong after Delph's error. The midfielder gifted the ball to Sterling after a poor Henderson corner, and he teed up Lambert who strode forward and sent a strike low and beyond Guzan into the far corner to seal the win in fine style.
As the clock ticked down, the voice of the jubilant travelling Kop rang around Villa Park as the home fans tried to decipher just how they hadn't gotten anything from the game. But it was a gutsy display from Liverpool, who clung onto their lead to seal a third successive away win and a third clean sheet on the bounce away from home to lift them into 7th place in the table, whilst Lambert's Villa remain eight hours and 42 minutes without a goal.
|Aston Villa (0)||Liverpool (2)|