So Liverpool dominate possession, get an early goal and have a narrow lead for a good portion of a match, experience some nervy moments and cause some problems for themselves, fail to build on their lead, and look uncertain for most of what follows. Only this time--as with last time, in case the transfer window's completely sucked the joyful part of your brain out--they stick it out, relying on resolute (if a little uncertain) defending to make Daniel Sturridge's first-half strike stand up yet again for a 1-0 victory.
Aston Villa 0
Liverpool 1: Sturridge 21'
No changes to the starting eleven seemed to indicate what many had assumed ahead of kickoff, in that Jordan Henderson's pressing and workrate would be good enough to stifle the suddenly vaunted Villa counter-attack. He was really the only starter from last week in danger; Iago Aspas might have dropped out in favor of Raheem Sterling or Joe Allen, depending on the formation, but the biggest question was always going to be whether or not Brendan Rodgers stuck with Henderson, and he continued to buck last season's trend by leaving the Welshman on the bench.
Much of the opening forty-five minutes was spent with Liverpool resting on the ball, completely dominating possession and rarely allowing Villa a chance to get forward. It was among the more dominant displays Liverpool have produced in recent years, passing at will and managing to turn away any potential threat from the hosts without much concern.
They probably should have found a goal sooner, but you got the sense that Rodgers' side were content with the ball at their feet and a view to finding an opening. It finally paid off in the 21st minute, with Jose Enrique sliding a low pass through the middle, and after a clever dummy from Philippe Coutinho, Daniel Sturridge gathered, dribbled, looked to waste the opportunity after rounding Brad Guzan before finally finishing with a deft left-footed poke in the roof of the net to give Liverpool the lead.
Failing to add to a lead is something that most Liverpool supporters are familiar with, but for most of the next twenty minutes it appeared to be only a formality before the visitors put the match to rest. Their confidence waned just before the break, however, as Villa pressed further up the pitch and Liverpool's defense was finally called into action. Simon Mignolet, Kolo Toure, and Daniel Agger all had their hand in preserving Liverpool's lead at the half, with a number of questions asked by the home side leading into the break.
It would have been nice to see a second half start that pushed Villa onto their heels--I had something along the lines of the win over Swansea at Anfield or the eventual drubbing of Newcastle at St. James' in mid, but it was mostly Villa on the front foot and Liverpool hanging on for dear life for the final forty-five minutes. That makes for excruciating viewing, even if you already know the result (which I did after having to miss the second half unexpectedly).
There were few positive moments to pick out in a half that probably should have seen Villa equalize and/or get themselves the win; Liverpool's few chances were snuffed out early enough to leave the hosts confident, and with a midfield display that was poor at best, it's a wonder that the points weren't shared.
Most notable was the play of Mignolet in goal, crucially parrying a strike in the 86th minute from Christian Benteke after the striker had been played into space by a header from Nicklaus Helenius. It was a repeat of the heroics from Liverpool's new number one after a terrific save on his international teammate in the first half, and while Paul Lambert's side weren't yet done pressing, it would prove to be one of the final frightening moments in another narrow, concerning, and ultimately satisfying Liverpool victory.
Video by MostarLFC
I am not going to complain about the way today ended up, because there's not really any room to complain about Liverpool grinding out three points in a match that, yet again, they probably would have found a way to draw or lose over the past few seasons. It wasn't perfect by any stretch, but perfection's never really the goal. It's about the winning, and Liverpool found a way to do just that today.
There are certainly things to iron out, and if some of the mistakes today--Gerrard and Lucas' second-half dip, the ease with which pieces of the back line gave away possession and space, inconsistent play across the attacking contingent--are repeated next weekend Liverpool will likely be punished in a more severe manner, or at least more painfully given that it'll be against Manchester United. Right those wrongs and maintain the good we saw today--Kolo Toure being Kolo Toure, Jordan Henderson's impressive workrate, Daniel Sturridge's finishing, Aly Cissokho's mostly decent debut, also KOLO--and Liverpool are rolling.
Only it wasn't against them today. It was against Aston Villa at Villa Park, and it was against a side that will be an absolute nightmare to face throughout the season. They didn't take their chances and were far too submissive in the second half, but for Liverpool to emerge victorious in a match that could have very well gone every which way but positively has to be celebrated.
We know that Liverpool have much to improve upon. That's clear. To start their season with two victories is a resounding success any way you cut it, though, especially when they're seemingly not at their best. Another crucial week awaits, but this season it seems as though every week is crucial.
Six points out of six seems an awfully nice way to start regardless of what your concerns might be.