Aston Villa 0
Liverpool 2: Borini 24', Lambert 79'
In a week when most of the focus has been on the impending return of Daniel Sturridge from injury, it was fitting that two of Liverpool's much maligned strikers ended up securing the three points at Villa Park. In the first half it was Fabio Borini latching onto an inch-perfect, curling cross from Jordan Henderson, and just over ten minutes from the final whistle--and with Villa threatening for most of the previous half-hour--it was substitute Rickie Lambert sending a low drive past Brad Guzan to put the visitors in the clear.
Sturridge will no doubt be first choice when he's fully fit, and goals aside, Borini in particular was relatively disappointing. But it's nice to have goalscorers actually scoring goals, especially in a match that didn't always go Liverpool's way. Their contributions in front of goal proved decisive, as did an improved effort from Simon Mignolet in goal and strong showings for Martin Skrtel, Emre Can, and Mamadou Sakho in defense and Jordan Henderson and Lucas in the midfield.
The return of Raheem Sterling provided both positives and negatives in attack, and most will be quick to pick out the chance he didn't take late in the first half. After Borini struck in the 24th minute, a header by Lucas from inside Liverpool's half somehow found its way through two different Villa defenders and into space. Sterling easily outpaced his man to leave himself one-on-one, but a tame chip was comfortably caught by Guzan.
Both Sterling and Coutinho were up and down throughout the match, as the latter had his typical moments of brilliance but didn't produce on the same level as in recent weeks. Borini provided smart movement and got himself into a number of dangerous positions, but wasted a number of chances, most notably when he failed to square for Coutinho, who was waiting all alone in front of the Villa goal. Lambert's introduction was widely (and fairly) questioned, but he provided stability along with Jose Enrique after coming on, and his goal was well taken after a clever touch gave him space from Aly Cissokho.
And while Villa were well on top for most of the second half, it was Liverpool's midfield and defense that provided the platform, with Mignolet looking assured for most of the match and each of Can, Skrtel, and Sakho handling themselves--and, other than a few isolated instances, Benteke and Gabby Agbonlahor--well. Villa fluffed the chances they did get, with Nathan Baker heading over and later completely missing a chance shortly after, and Liverpool's defense recovered well over the final twenty minutes. Their efforts were aided by the work of Henderson and Lucas in midfield, with the former against looking revitalized in his central midfield role and starting to wear the armband with increased confidence.
The home side's lack of finishing surely played a part, but the result cannot be solely defined by the weaknesses of the opposition. Liverpool's defending was integral, from Lazar Markovic tracking back to close down on Tom Cleverly late in the first half to Henderson clearing deftly after substitute Carles Gil, who was terrific, played a neat one-two into the Liverpol area to Mignolet denying Benteke from point-blank range.
Ahead of three consecutive cup matches and two weeks out from their next Premier League match, the performance and result are to be enjoyed. Far from perfect but in command, and finally finding their footing after struggling so badly. The manager has found a system that works with the personnel available, and they're yet again poised for a second-half charge. They'll need to address the areas of concern from today if they're going to make good on that promise, but the last few weeks have shown that they're capable of doing so.