Aston Villa 0
Liverpool 6 Sturridge 16,' Milner 25', Can 59', Origi 63', Clyne 65', Toure 71'
The last time Liverpool and Aston Villa met in the league, Brendan Rodgers and Tim Sherwood were at the respective helms, and both managers were feeling the pressure after uninspiring starts to the season. Fast forward to Valentine's Day 2016, and both sides now feature new managers in charge. While neither Jürgen Klopp not Rémi Garde have managed to miraculously transform their squads into world beaters, or even Sunderland beaters for that matter, there have been reasons for both men to be optimistic.
The two sides started the contest at Villa Park in bright fashion, with Villa displaying an early willingess to match Liverpool's intensity in pressing. For Liverpool fans, a mouthwatering trio of Sturridge, Coutinho and Firmino - arguably the squad's pointiest set of spearheads - provided a hint of things to come, with lots of bright movement and vision, and only an occasional rustiness in the final pass. For the hosts, Carles Gil and Gabriel Agbonlahor supplied early threats to Liverpool's back four without meaningfully troubling Simon Mignolet's goal.
After the first quarter of an hour, Coutinho looked to have recalibrated his passing algorithms, and lofted an inch-perfect (not the only time this phrase would be used in connection with Coutinho today) cross to a lurking Daniel Sturridge, who headed past Bunn with ease. Joleon Lescott and Aly Cissokho will have been disappointed with the space they afforded the Liverpool striker, and the grimaces from Villa's defenders would be a portent of further confusion and haplessness.
Villa remained unbowed after conceding, continuing to harry Liverpool in the visitor's third, but less than ten minutes after the opening goal, more comedy defending allowed James Milner to double the lead with a free kick from the left that somehow eluded everyone in the box before ending up in the netting. Even if it was against his former club, Milner seemed unsure of whether the goal was worthy of too effusive a celebration, such was the farcical nature of the defending.
Now facing a much higher mountain to climb, some of the sting came out of Villa, and Liverpool were allowed to maintain a consistent of degree of pressure on the hosts. For Liverpool fans, the combination of Sturridge, Coutinho and Firmino - quick in thought and deed, always looking to deliver a killing blow - would have brought back memories of the 2013-14 campaign. Thoughts of the disappointing stalemate against Sunderland must have been in some Liverpool players' minds as they refused to take their feet off the pedal, with Coutinho and Firmino taking turns to pickpocket Villa in search of more goals.
Though they kept Liverpool at bay for the remainder of the first half, Villa's disintegration accelerated in the second half, especially after Agbonlahor was forced off, showing signs of distress. Coutinho, left free to roam, put in a man of the match performance, showing off the full array of tricks in his book, finding teammates and testing defenders from the left, from the right, from downtown, and in the box. A third goal was a question of when, not if.
It eventually arrived courtesy of more slack possession from Villa. Firmino showed great touch and vision as he eluded his markers and found a surging Emre Can, who no doubt lauched a thousand more tank comparisons as he cannoned the ball past Bunn to effectively end the contest. With a three goal advantage, and despite Gana doing his best to trouble Mignolet by starting a move that ended with the ball pinballing dangerously in Liverpool's box, Klopp opted to return Sturridge to the warm, welcoming safety of the bench.
Sturridge's replacement, Divock Origi, was on the pitch for a whopping twenty seconds before he was able to latch on to another inch-perfect Coutinho pass (told you this would happen again) and finished with the sort of calm lethality that has been notably missing from his compatriot Christian Benteke. If this match were a videotape, this would be the point at which "please be kind and rewind" would be rolling across the screen.
And Liverpool were certainly rewinding the movie. Despite the six goal demolition of Southampton earlier in the season, this was not a Liverpool side recently accustomed to piling it on. But here they were, four goals to the good and still showing a swagger and aggression, albeit against a dismal Villa side, that had not been consistently seen since that season. Most importantly, Liverpool were demonstrating a clinical edge whose absence has been responsible for a slew of dropped points in 2016.
Liverpool's defenders were the next to get in on the action, with Nathaniel Clyne adding a fifth amidst a goalmouth scramble (after more good work from Firmino) and Kolo Touré heading past Bunn from a corner for the sixth (a sign of the apocalyse, surely). By the time Benteke was brought on in the 73rd minute, the only remaining question of note in this contest was whether the former Villa star would score against his former team, or whether former Liverpool cult hero Aly Cissokho would be allowed to unleash the Kraken past Mignolet (spoiler alert: neither happened).
Villa fans - those who remained - sang loudly for their side as the match wound down to its inevitable denouement. In truth, the final scoreline was as much a reflection of Liverpool's improved (sometimes startlingly so) play as it was an indictment of Villa's collapse. Injuries have played their part in hampering Liverpool's ability to get its best players on the pitch at the same time. The performance today of Sturridge, Coutinho and Firmino will, however, have some Liverpool fans wondering if they are getting a sneak preview of Jürgen Klopp's reboot of the free scoring 2013-14 side. With the resumption of the Europa League campaign just around the corner and a Capital One Cup final at Wembley beckoning, this would be an excellent time for the new look Liverpool to find its feet.