Daniel Sturridge's superb first-half goal was enough to give Liverpool the points as they beat Aston Villa 1-0 in the late kick-off at Villa Park on Saturday.
Sturridge dragged the ball away from Antonio Luna before rounding Brad Guzan and finding the back of the net as the Reds capitalised on a dominant start midway through the first half.
Villa came back into the game thereafter with Christian Benteke seeing a powerful shot saved by Simon Mignolet but despite heavy pressure Liverpool held on to win. Here we take an in-depth look at the game...
With Aston Villa playing their third Premier League game in eight days, Paul Lambert opted to rest Karim El Ahmadi and bring in Leandro Bacuna in midfield for his full debut. Fellow new boy Jores Okore, who came on for the injured Ciaran Clark in midweek, retained his place in the centre of defence. The formation remained 4-3-3 with Andreas Weimann and Gabriel Agbonlahor supporting Benteke from the wide positions.
Liverpool were unchanged from the side that beat Stoke 1-0 at Anfield in the opening game of the Premier League season. Brendan Rodgers lined his team up in a fluid 4-2-3-1 formation with Iago Aspas in support of Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho and Jordan Henderson cutting in from the flanks. New arrival Aly Cissokho took his place on the bench for the first time.
Where it was won and lost
Lambert won his first three Premier League games up against Rodgers, albeit the first two being when the pair were managing different sides, so his initial plan came as no surprise. The general pattern has become familiar with Rodgers' sides seeking to dominate the ball and Lambert looking to cause problems on the counter-attack, such as when Villa beat Liverpool 3-1 at Anfield last season despite enjoying just 27.9 per cent of possession.
It was that same story in the early stages at Villa Park on Sunday. "Liverpool are more patient in the build-up whereas Aston Villa like to get the ball forward quicker," said Alan Smith on commentary. Indeed, Liverpool had 70 per cent of possession in the opening 12 minutes with Villa restricted to frenetic breakaways, most notably using the pace of Agbonlahor on the left to worry the visitors.
If Villa were showing too much urgency for their own good going forward, this was an important quality in defence where Okore made six tackles, clearances and blocks in the opening half an hour. Midfielder Fabian Delph managed eight in that period as Villa worked hard to deny Liverpool space in the final third.
Villa working really hard to try and ensure Liverpool don't have good possession in the final third. Big ask to do it for 90 minutes though.- Tony Barrett (@TonyBarretTimes) August 24, 2013
It was proving successful early on with Coutinho, in particular, proving wasteful in his use of the ball as he was twice dispossessed before then opting to shoot when he was well placed to pick out a team-mate. "I'm not sure it is his best position on that left-hand side," said Jamie Redknapp prior to kick-off. "He likes to get involved in the game."
Given that wastefulness in possession and the preference for playing from a central position, perhaps it was apt then that Coutinho was able to play a role in the opening goal from the middle - by not touching the ball. His dummy allowed the pass from Jose Enrique to find Sturridge who did brilliantly to evade Luna and then delay the shot by taking the ball past Guzan and stabbing home.
Sturridge thoroughly deserved his goal. His movement across the line was impressive and his relationship with Coutinho continues to blossom. A desire to play as a striker was believed to be part of the motivation behind his wish to leave Chelsea, but his time in the wide positions looks to have benefited him as a player. His intelligent link-up play makes him a natural in Rodgers' system and he thrived as Liverpool got midfielders close to him in the early stages.
8 - Daniel Sturridge has now scored eight goals in his last seven Premier League appearances. Streak.- OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) August 24, 2013
Liverpool's lead presented a problem for Villa with the away side content to pass the ball around but reluctant to commit too many bodies forward. Aware that the counter-attack remained Villa's chief weapon, Lucas Leiva ensured that Daniel Agger and Kolo Toure remained well protected. "This is systematic of how they played last season," said Jamie Redknapp at the break. "They've got to find a way of replicating what they do away from home."
By that stage, Villa had at least created some pressure with a couple of corners in the latter stages of the first half to highlight the danger they could pose. For all Liverpool's possession - 62.6 per cent during the first period - the home side actually had two more attempts on goal in that first half. Four of their six efforts came in the final five minutes before the interval.
It was a sign of what was to come. The approach may have lacked the subtlety of Liverpool's interchanges but Villa had the visitors rocking as they worked the ball into wide areas far more effectively. Although rarely comfortable in possession in the final third, Lambert's side were able to get higher up the field and eventually won eight corners after waiting 41 minutes for their first.
Liverpool became the counter-attacking side and Sturridge proved a willing runner, testing the Villa back-line down both flanks. But the forward runners of the early stages were no more and his influence waned as a result. "He's struggled to get a kick of the ball," said Smith. "He's not had the support he had in the first half."
Liverpool were being pushed back with Lowton getting considerable space down the right due to Coutinho's tendency to drift inside. That may have prompted Lambert to bring on El Ahmadi and shift midfielder Bacuna to right-back in the hope that the Dutchman could make it count. However, that change drew an instant response from Rodgers who brought on Cissokho to shore up the threat - giving Bacuna a direct opponent and moving Coutinho into the Aspas role.
In the latter stages, second balls seemed the best chance for Villa and one such opportunity fell to Agbonlahor from Toure's header under pressure from Benteke but he could only drill wide of the post. The arrival of 6'5" Nicklas Helenius aided that route of attack soon after and this led to Villa's best chance as a bouncing ball was headed through by Helenius for Benteke to force a high-quality save from Mignolet.
But with Toure and Agger making 21 clearances between them - Okore was the only other player to make more than five - Liverpool withstood the barrage and held on for the points. Their second-half efforts may have lacked the fluency of the first-half display but Rodgers is likely to be as encouraged by what he saw after the interval as before it. This was a win that showed Liverpool could win ugly as well as win pretty - all in the space of the same game.
"I knew it was going to be a big ask. The three games that we've had in a short space of time were huge and nobody thought we'd get any points. We've been in the games, which is fantastic for us, and we've won one. I thought we were brilliant in the second half. The goalkeeper has had some great saves. In the second half we were very good. We pressed the game better and got a second wind. We gave it a right good go and we are a young side but I think the improvement was there for everybody to see."
"It was a terrific win for us. In the first half we had good control of the game and got our goal. In the second half we just had to defend a little deeper and obviously tactically that was the idea. If you look at their first two games, Aston Villa are brilliant on the counter-attack and if you open up too much then they've got players who can really hurt you. We just defended the half-pitch and kept the lines together to deny them chances. It was a great win for us because this will be a very difficult team to play against."
"Liverpool's ambition should be to get in the top four this year. When you go away from home it's all about grinding results out. They weren't at their vintage best but they passed it really well in the first half. They were calm and they were composed. In the second half they sat back a bit and were just trying to hold onto what they had. As for Aston Villa, they are a lot better than they were last year but they need to find a way to win games at home. They need to have more confidence on the ball. They seem to rush."
Not only did Daniel Sturridge come up with the crucial goal but he also defended with his back to goal very impressively with his team under pressure late on. He is clearly enjoying the chance to lead the line. "I'm just playing my normal game," Sturridge told Sky Sports after the game. "I've not played as much as a centre-forward as I'd like to have in the past." In this form, Rodgers will not be in a hurry to move him back to those wide positions.