Liverpool 3 Milner 2', Sturridge 59' 67'
Aston Villa 2 Gestede 66' 71'
A rousing rendition of You'll Never Walk Alone kicked off a game that saw Liverpool deploy a familiar starting eleven in a back three system. Philippe Coutinho operating in the hole behind an expansive pair of Dannys: Ings and Sturridge, respectively. That turned out to be an important wrinkle, as the latter would have himself a game to write home about. Aston Villa set up in a pretty standard 4-4-2 that stayed deep, disciplined, and happily reliant upon Rudy Gestede's ability to toss centerbacks around like ragdolls.
Excitement came from a boring place to start the game, as James Milner put aside indifferent form to open the scoring in the 2nd minute. Incision from Coutinho eventually led to a familiar dink inside, a hot mustard pass well controlled on the turn by #7, and a low finish with a left-footed blast from the top of the box. It was Milner's first goal for Liverpool and was the first time in what feels like ages since Liverpool had a hot start.
Coutinho would involve the suddenly effervescent Milner and an in form Alberto Moreno in buildup play all half. The Brazilian happily utilizing his pet left-to-right movement in possession, and often looking for the pass. That is probably Coutinho at his best, and a steady dose of that can only lead to good things moving forward.
An early Liverpool set piece from the right found Emre Can somewhat audaciously going for goal, and the energy from the players was palpable. Can would continue in the wars early, pushing forward well, and carrying out that attacking centerback role that is so critical to this system.
For the second league game in a row, that system generally provided numbers in all three phases for the Reds. And as the first half settled, Liverpool found themselves with play comfortably in front of them. Villa struggled to find the right transition to turn deep lines of defense into fast breaks of attack. And while Liverpool weren't exactly dangerous, it felt like only an unforced error would unhinge the Reds' command on proceedings.
And that error nearly arrived in the 22nd minute when Emre Can demonstrated a lovely touch to lay the ball off for an arriving Gestede. The resulting right footed blast swerved wide of the upright, but it had Simon Mignolet wondering if he'd left the oven on at home. It was not the first time Gestede had demonstrated himself to be a danger man, nor would it be the last, with his consistent aerial abuse of Mamadou Sakho a particularly scary sight.
A handball shout on Alan Hutton, fans began singing, and the half petered on with ten yellow jerseys consistently lined up between Liverpool's possession and Guzan's goal. Coutinho continues to show audacity in his shot selection, with the Brazilian calling bank off Joleon Lescott's face on one memorably looped attempt that nearly snuck under the crossbar from 25 yards out.
It wasn't until the 41st minute that Villa perked up a bit, first with some Hutton service from the right that Mignolet just barely Superman'd away. Ashley Westwood would mimic the trick from a similar position, with Gestede doing not quite enough to score, but more than enough to fill Liverpudlian shorts far and wide. Then Scott Sinclair pretended to be a professional footballer and balance was restored to the cosmos, Liverpool taking their 1-0 lead into halftime. The biggest point of controversy during the otherwise clean half: were Coutinho's boots periwinkle or lavender?
Second verse same as the first in terms of tactics, squad selections, and energy. Coutinho's tucked in shirt wasn't just for show, as his overt influence on proceedings was all business. It would be great to get that every week.
Then the tearjerker: a Daniel Sturridge goal. Where first half Studge had looked a man testing out his own body, running systems checks, second half Studge was reassuringly confident in his deadliness. His first goal was an offering to the left-sided gods: Milner dinking a left-footed ball into the left channel for Sturridge to run onto, take out of the air, and into the net with one glorious swing of his favored left peg. Welcome back, D-Studge.
That goal opened the taps for Liverpool, with comfortable possession leading to waves of attack, and the occasional Villain in possession turned over with minimal fuss--these were the Reds you'd been looking for. So much so that the defensive faff up that allowed Gestede to pop up with an easy goal was almost immediately erased by--wait for it--ANOTHER GOAL.
It was Red Sugar Sex Magic on the left side of Villa's box that sprung Sturridge's second: Studge feeding Coutinho, Coutinho backheeling to Studge, and the Englishman's right foot placing the ball low and in the corner. Unluckyyyy, Brad Guzan.
3-1, and all that was left now was for the public announcer to confirm the all clear for Anfield Exercise, right? No. Because this is Liverpool, and Rudy Gestede is the Baba-dook! dook! dook! Ball in from the left side, H.A.M. all over Sakho's face, and on we go with the scoreline at 3-2 and 20 minutes left to chew your fingernails.
Coutinho came close on a 71st minute free kick from the left that required a top shelf leap for Guzan to palm it away. The competent Ings was shaken up on the subsequent corner kick, and now the blood really thrummed through the game--both sets of fans rolling out the chants, both managers wildly gesticulating from the sidelines. This is Anfield!
Ten minutes to go and Adama Traore would outrun Alberto Moreno, of all people, before Sakho put in a sliding clearance. It wasn't a dangerous moment, per se, but after being put through the meat grinder by Gestede, it was one of the only times Sakho looked commanding.
Sturridge would find himself with a few more chances, once with only Micah Richards to beat, and once with a right footed effort from the left channel that Guzan did well to push wide. He came off uninjured during injury time to some well-earned applause and, probably, a desperately breathy thank you from his manager.
In the end, then, it was a great day for Daniel Sturridge in what could be an important win for Brendan Rodgers. Liverpool finally show signs of life, and do so in familiar fashion. Walk on, lads.