Aston Villa 1: Benteke 31'
Liverpool 2: Henderson 47', Gerrard (pen.) 60'
With fitness no longer an issue for many of Liverpool's principals, it was mostly back to business as usual for Brendan Rodgers' eleven. Pepe Reina replaced Brad Jones, Jamie Carragher came in for Martin Skrtel, and Lucas reclaimed his spot alongside Steven Gerrard in central midfield. The biggest change--and the one we'd been waiting for--was the starting spot handed to Jordan Henderson, which came at the expense of Daniel Sturridge. It gave Liverpool more numbers and more energy in the midfield, and with Sturridge either off form or fitness, it also gave Luis Suarez a chance to return to his role as the centerpiece of Liverpool's attack.
He didn't exactly thrive, though, particularly in a first half that saw him waste a number of chances in the opening half-hour. Liverpool's best opportunities came through the Uruguayan, who tested Brad Guzan in the twentieth minute after an interchange with Glen Johnson left him with a shot inside the area that was saved well by the American goalkeeper. Just before the half-hour mark he was played in by Coutinho on the left, but Nathan Baker stole in to force an off-balance shot that was dragged well wide.
Villa weren't nearly as wasteful, erasing the early disappointment from Reina's save on Gaby Agbonlahor's point-blank effort by taking the lead in the 31st minute. A long punt down the pitch was knocked down by Agbonlahor's thigh for Christian Benteke, who hit it first-time past a wrong-footed Reina. It was the archetypal Liverpool goal to concede, albeit with less domination at the other end--few chances conceded, long ball over the top, struggle to cope with physicality, watch it all end in tears.
Liverpool had two decent chances to draw level before the break, first when Suarez found himself one-on-one with Guzan and then through a superb Steven Gerrard strike from range. Both were saved well by Guzan; he closed Suarez down enough to force a weak left-footed shot and then used every inch of his frame to tip Gerrard's shot away to safety.
Thankfully the second half effort was much, much better. Nothing revelatory or overwhelming on its own, but comparatively speaking, it was something of a sea change from the first half. Better pressure, better closing down, and, just two minutes after the restart, better finishing. Philippe Coutinho played a lovely curling through ball for Jordan Henderson, who had acres of space in the center of the pitch. He composed himself well in front of Guzan and drifted one into the side netting, giving Liverpool their equalizer through their two most promising players on the day.
Just over ten minutes later they had their lead, with Luis Suarez winning a penalty on a foul from Nathan Baker. It was a clear penalty, as Baker came straight through Suarez after the forward had taken a touch back towards goal. Brad Guzan guessed correctly but couldn't get to Steven Gerrard's penalty, which sneaked underneath Guzan into the bottom corner.
Aside from two incidents defensively it was straightforward enough from there--the first came in the 64th minute, when Gerrard adjusted magnificently to head clear of the goal line from a Christian Benteke header, and just a few minutes later when Pepe Reina had to scramble to tip over a Matthew Lowton cross that almost sailed in. Liverpool had chances to extend their lead but simply couldn't finish it off; Luis Suarez had the pick of the lot, jinking through defenders to clear himself on goal, but he failed to get a shot off and then got in the way of Raheem Sterling, for whom the ball had fallen nicely.
Villa threatened from set pieces late, and in injury time it briefly looked as though they'd steal a point on another Christian Benteke half-volley. It wasn't to be, though, as the strike was correctly ruled offside by the linesman, and Liverpool had three points to kick off their final run-in for the 2012-2013 season.
The three points are just about the only thing to get excited about from today--that's plenty, of course, but it also speaks to the fact that there was very little that was overwhelmingly positive from all involved. Shaky at times and damn near shambolic at others, Liverpool's first-half alone was better left forgotten aside from the few moments mentioned above. The bright start was erased by long periods of Villa dominance, and while the hosts didn't necessarily deserve much more, Liverpool were far from convincing.
Overall improvements were evident in the second half, and the goals were a fair return for what Liverpool was able to put together. It was fitting that the first was created by Coutinho and finished by Henderson, as they'd been about as good as Liverpool got, and the play of Suarez in attack had to glean something, in this case a coolly converted penalty by Steven Gerrard. Some good defending ended up sealing it for the guests, which, based on today's evidence, wasn't necessarily the most likely outcome.
Individually it was up and down, and in the case of most it was largely down. Pepe Reina was among the better at the back, with nobody doing much convincing across the back four and Lucas having one of his worst showings of the season in the midfield. Gerrard was better in the second half but did little in the first, Stewart Downing was mostly anonymous--other than a handful of cringe-worthy moments--all match, and Suarez was active but profligate in leading the line.
Liverpool continue to suffer from self-inflicted wounds and an inability to learn; they simply cannot cope with set pieces in general, and when opposition forwards batter them a bit they're unbelievably fragile. This isn't news to anyone who's been paying attention, and you can't imagine that it's news to anyone at the club, but it doesn't change week after week. If they're going to sustain any sort of challenge towards the top of the table, that has to be sorted.
That challenge isn't coming any time soon, though, and for now we can just enjoy the three points despite the fact that the performance wasn't necessarily one to be enjoyed. Enough good moments to earn the win, and enough to leave us looking forward to continued improvements from now until season's end.