Liverpool 1 Aston Villa 0

Last updated : 10 January 2004 By Footymad Previewer

Liverpool's midweek raid at Chelsea may have parted the storm clouds hovering over Anfield, but Kop boss Houlier is far from out of the woods.

While Emile Heskey won plaudits for his matchwinning performance against Roman Abromovich's moneybags, the French mastermind still has his detractors.

The under-fire boss was boosted by the return of Michael Owen despite rumours of a simmering feud between the manager and the England striker.

But Villa playing with new found confidence under David O'Leary proved stubborn opposition.

Houllier was without the injured Chris Kirkland and Jerzy Dudek and was forced to start with on-loan Southampton keeper Paul Jones, but it was the home side who proved the most menacing.

In the first minute German midfielder Dietmar Hamann flashed a trademark right-footed drive past Thomas Sorensen's right-hand upright.

Villa responded well in the opening ten minutes, Juan Pablo Angel coming close on eight minutes after latching on to an Olof Mellberg cross to head a foot over the bar.

Both teams have enjoyed a rich vein of form of late in the Premiership, but a howler by Owen on 12 minutes seemed to sum up the striker's own unpredictable season.

Heskey headed down into the Villa box before a goalmouth scramble found Owen with the goal gaping. But with just the keeper to beat from five yards a match rusty Owen leaned back and hammered the ball against the crossbar.

Reds new boy Jones was finally tested on 26 minutes after the Midlanders' own diminutive striker Darius Vassell forced a sharp save from the Welshman after collecting a Lee Hendrie throughball.

Liverpool almost created an opener on 31 minutes after a tepid first half hour. Harry Kewell, free to roam across the right and left wings, whipped a cross into the box which was intercepted by Villa defender JLloyd Samuel, whose disastrous first touch almost took the ball past Sorensen before being retrieved from the line.

But the Merseysiders sneaked ahead minutes later on 35 minutes edging Houllier towards his Champions League ultimatum.

Again Kewell crossed from wide on the right and Heskey rose above the back four to head down into the six-yard box. The ball then ricocheted off Danny Murphy's behind on to Mark Delaney, who watched in agony as the ball crept into the net for an own goal.

Liverpool could have gone 2-0 at half time after good work from Senegalese winger El Hadji Diouf. Diouf turned Delaney inside out before finding Kewell with a good cross. The Australian spurned the chance, scuffing his half-volley high and wide.

After the break, Liverpool continued to press with the unstoppable Diouf bamboozling the Villa defence. Diouf, set to leave Merseyside next week to play in the African Cup of Nations, hammered a low cross into the box which keeper Sorensen could only fingertip into the path of Owen before Mellberg somehow scrambled the ball away.

The Reds were on top and looking impressive. On 51 minutes a dazzling run from Kewell found Heskey in the box, but the striker's confident mood only ended in a speculative shot spooned over the bar.

Delaney fell Kewell on 58 minutes but Hamann's ferocious free-kick blazed inches over the bar.

Villa's defence were standing firm and the presence of Mellberg meant Owen rarely had a sniff at goal, but Diouf again continued to baffle Villa's back line.

On 67 minutes, the shaven-headed star humiliated Samuel, audaciously flicking the ball over the left-back's head before skipping round him putting a good cross into the box.

But despite Diouf's trickery Liverpool were not playing pretty football and looked more determined to cling on to the three points.

Hamann commanded the midfield and everybody in a red shirt was closing down space as if their life depended on it.

French striker Florent Sinama Pongolle replaced a jaded Owen on 73 minutes to end a frustrating afternoon for the Anfield hero and moments later the young striker was put through 40 yards out with just one defender to beat.

But the inexperienced forward dallied, allowing Villa to make up the ground before playing a weak ball to Kewell who could only blaze woefully wide from ten yards out.

Villa through on the former Manchester United defender Ronny Johnsen allowing the makeshift centre-back Dion Dublin to move up front into his natural goalscoring position.

But despite Villa throwing the kitchen sink at Liverpool in the dying minutes, the Reds defence were not for the cracking.

Stefan Moore wasted Villa's best chance on 86 minutes as O'Leary's men slipped to defeat.

Hamann slipped near the centre spot allowing Moore a run at goal. He skipped past Sami Hyypia and Stephane Henchoz, but scuffed his shot dreadfully wide from 12 yards.

Liverpool could and should have ended the match 2-0 up with a minute to spare.

Substitute Bruno Cheyrou ran at the Villa defence before playing a delightful ball through to Kewell. The Aussie wasted another chance, thumping the ball into the sidenetting.

The final whistle was greeted with a cheer by the Anfield faithful who suspect Houllier's men finally turned a corner in their turbulent season and after the match Houllier pondered a good day at the office.