Saturday 10th January 2004 (3pm)
Anfield, Liverpool

Hamann was in inspirational form

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After this game: Pos 5th Pl 20 Pts 32
MATCH REPORT - Liverpool 1-0 Aston Villa

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Delaney og 35

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Liverpool have found defiance and steel to haul themselves back into the race for a Champions League spot.

They were fortunate to beat Aston Villa, who lost for the first time in six games, mounted an outstanding assault that will at least give boss David O'Leary something to be proud of.

All they lacked was a contribution from Juan Pablo Angel, who found Liverpool defiance from Sami Hyypia, Igor Biscan and the excellent Dietmar Hamann, too much to contend with.

Liverpool, in a week that started with a stormy annual general meeting full of recriminations and criticism of Gerard Houllier, have now produced three wins in seven days that have kept them in the hunt in the FA Cup and Premiership.

The goal that clinched it, seemingly bouncing off Danny Murphy and Mark Delaney - both unsuspecting participants as an Emile Heskey effort soared into the box - summed up the day for Liverpool.

It was not pretty, but it counted. The plaudits go to on-loan keeper Paul Jones, and his battery of defiant red shirts who stopped Villa in their tracks when they got near the area.

But come May, when maybe Liverpool are in with a shout of qualifying for Europe's major tournament, nobody will remember just how these three points were clawed away from the Midlanders.

Michael Owen was back in the starting line-up after three months of injury problems, and Jones made his debut, as Liverpool sought to build on that excellent win in midweek against Chelsea.

For Villa, vastly improved of late, full-back Delaney and striker Angel both passed fitness tests on knee and ankle injuries. It meant O'Leary was able to name an unchanged side from the won that beat Portsmouth in midweek.

Liverpool, still with shaky confidence, could maybe have done without facing one of the Premiership's in-form teams, but they started with clear intent, and Hamann's 25-yarder inside the first minute that fizzed inches wide should have set a standard.

Harry Kewell then cut in from the right to fire well wide with his left foot. But Villa are full of confidence at the moment, and were bright, quick and competitive, with Angel rising to head over after seven minutes from a Olof Mellberg cross from the right.

Somehow Liverpool failed to score on 12 minutes. El-Hadji Diouf's cross was headed out of Thomas Sorensen's hands by Heskey, the ball hit Owen, was turned back in by Kewell for Owen to flick onto the bar from just a yard.

Villa were dangerous from set-plays, and when one Gareth Barry free-kick was not cleared properly, Lee Hendrie belted it a yard over the bar.

The midlanders did well in midfield with Barry, Hendrie and Gavin McCann winning plenty of possession.

Villa's resourceful approach kept Liverpool pinned in their own half, and Jones needed to make an excellent, instinctive 36th-minute save on his near post after Darius Vassell had held off Biscan to fire in a fierce shot.

Villa's midfield four, plus Angel and Vassell worked like trojans to pressure Liverpool's defenders in their own half, and it caused errors and hurried passing that kept the pressure on the hosts.

Their in-your-face approach finally cost McCann a booking for catching Hamann late. McCann came off worst and was helped off.

Before McCann returned, Liverpool found themselves ahead on 36 minutes. Kewell and Heskey combined to get the ball into the box, and it hit an unsuspecting Murphy on the backside Delaney also looked to have got a touch in the melee - but the ball deflected into the bottom corner with Sorensen and his defenders motionless.

Liverpool were soon on the attack after the break with Diouf evading Jlloyd Samuel and getting to the line before firing in a cross that Sorensen fumbled, but Owen could not get to quickly enough to turn in.

But Liverpool were unable to kept a grip on possession long enough to keep Villa from pressuring them in their own half.

Diouf, playing his final game before linking up with Senegal for the African Nations Cup, had his best performance in months, switching from wing to wing and producing control and pace that constantly worried Villa.

And Diouf, who had earlier in the week seen his red card at Chelsea withdrawn, was booked on 65 minutes for a trip, and will now find himself facing a one-match ban.

Owen lasted until 73 minutes, having not surprisingly had a quiet game, and was replaced by Florent Sinama-Pongolle.

Liverpool were by now entrenched in their own half, stringing nine men across the field in defiance.

Kewell and Hamann were both booked, Kewell missed two golden chances on the break to settle things, but somehow Liverpool hung on.

Press Association

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Liverpool Jones, Henchoz, Hyypia, Biscan, Riise, Diouf (Cheyrou 82), Murphy, Hamann, Kewell, Owen (Sinama Pongolle 73), Heskey.

Subs Not Used: Luzi Bernardi, Le Tallec, Traore.

Booked: Diouf, Kewell, Hamann.

Aston Villa Sorensen, Delaney, Dublin, Mellberg, Samuel, Hendrie (Johnsen 68), McCann (Hitzlsperger 40), Whittingham, Barry, Vassell (Moore 45), Angel.

Subs Not Used: Postma, De la Cruz.

Booked: McCann, Hitzlsperger.

Att: 43,771

Ref: G Barber (Hertfordshire).


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BBC Sports' Stuart Hall post-match verdict

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Match Report filed: 17th January 2004