Just when Aston Villa feared reaching the halfway stage of the season in the relegation zone, they were elevated to mid-table by their best day since Martin O'Neill's reign. Richard Jolly reports.
Liverpool 1 Aston Villa 3
LIVERPOOL // A youthful manager who is trying to revolutionise an underperforming club with youthful players saw a glorious vindication of his methods.
Not Brendan Rodgers, the Anfield moderniser, but Paul Lambert, his Aston Villa equivalent. Men with similarities endured the extremes of emotions. Lambert was delighted, Rodgers disappointed.
Just when Liverpool thought a corner had been turned, they were given a brutal reminder of the work to be done.
Just when Aston Villa, who face Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur next, feared reaching the halfway stage of the season in the relegation zone, they were elevated to mid-table by their best day since Martin O'Neill's reign.
A 3-1 victory was a triumph of teamwork and a resounding endorsement of Lambert's management.
He has cast the old guard aside, promoted the next generation and signed the up and coming.
But despite a series of creditable draws and reaching the Capital One Cup semi-finals, his reign had lacked a defining result, a moment to provide concrete proof of progress. It was supplied wonderfully yesterday.
The architect was Christian Benteke, the Belgian battering ram in the attack. Scorer of two goals, provider of the other for Andreas Weimann, Benteke reinforced his reputation as a rising force.
Benteke offers an all-round game that has brought comparisons with Didier Drogba, Weimann a predatory instinct. They are 22 and 21 respectively, finishers who represent the future.
"The whole performance was fabulous," Lambert said. "The goals were excellent and I thought the back three were terrific. Young lads put their body on the line."
As ever, however, strikers take the spotlight.
Lambert's men began the game as the Premier League's lowest scorers. They rather belied that reputation as a goal-shy team as both strikers were on the scoresheet at half time.
Operating on the counter-attack, Villa showed incision and intent, breaking purposefully and clinically.
The subplot of the season at Villa Park has been the continuing controversy about Darren Bent's exclusion.
With the club record signing injured, he was out of the equation but the men Lambert prefers in attack provided him with vindication.
When Brett Holman rolled the ball into his path, Benteke took aim from 25 yards. With no one closing him down, he beat Pepe Reina at his near post.
Scorer turned supplier, Benteke brilliantly back-heeling the ball into Weimann's path for the Austrian to drill in the second. It was the culmination of clever combination work, with both strikers involved twice.
"The goals were brilliant, the second especially with the movement and back-heel," Lambert added. "Benteke has been unbelievable and Weimann is a natural finisher."
He almost illustrated that earlier, a lob landing on the roof of the net after Reina was left stranded by Glen Johnson's poor header.
The goalkeeper was exposed again when Benteke added the third. After Holman robbed substitute Joe Cole, he powered through, avoiding Martin Skrtel and holding off Joe Allen, before lifting his shot past Reina.
"We contrived to concede poor goals," said Rodgers.
After a solitary loss in 11 games, this represented a real setback.
"I didn't see it coming," admitted Rodgers, who accepted his side deserved their defeat. "It was a bad day at the office. We weren't quite at it with our intensity or our pressure."
Indeed, they were at their brightest before Villa scored. Liverpool only mustered a reply in the final few minutes when Johnson's shot was turned in by Steven Gerrard. However, they felt they should have been on the scoresheet before then.
It has been a source of considerable frustration at Anfield that Liverpool have not been awarded a penalty yet this season. They were annoyed again when Ciaran Clark tugged Daniel Agger back as they challenged for Skrtel's header. Neil Swarbrick became the latest referee to irritate Liverpool.
"I'm not sure what we're going to have to do to get a penalty," Rodgers added.
Whatever their problems with the men in black, however, Liverpool's real difficulties were posed by the players wearing claret and blue.