Behind the strength of tremendous performances from Christian Benteke, Andreas Weimann, and a disciplined and determined back line, Aston Villa downed Liverpool in convincing fashion and ended one of the club's best weeks in several years in high-style. Villa went into the break up 2-0 and put it out of reach just shortly after half time, with Liverpool's lone consolation goal coming far too late to really matter. Villa's unbeaten streak has now been stretched to five in the Premier League and six in all competitions, with today's stunning win moving them three points clear of the relegation zone and into 14th place in the table.
Given the game's first half-hour, this result did not seem to be in the cards; Liverpool were in control from the start, putting near constant pressure on Villa's back line and crafting chance after chance that were snuffed out due to some excellent last-ditch defending and predictably outstanding goalkeeping by Brad Guzan. The pressure was near relentless and a goal seemed inevitable from five minute on, but Christian Benteke shocked Anfield when his skipping, driven low shot clanged off the post and in past a diving Pepe Reina to give Villa a 1-0 lead in the 29th minute. To call the goal against the run of play would not be doing justice to how unexpected it was, but it gave a Villa side that had done brilliantly to withstand the pressure of the home side a visible boost of confidence.
That was clearly evident just over ten minutes after the opener, when Benteke and Weimann worked one of the most gorgeous one-two combinations you're ever likely to see. Brett Holman did well to settle the ball on the break before finding Weimann, who freed Benteke down the flank and then made a perfect run to find the big striker's gorgeous backheel and curl the ball past Reina. In a season that's seen some pretty special goals, this might have been my favorite both because of how wonderfully worked it was and all that it represents. When Aston Villa is clicking, they are playing just absolutely gorgeous football, and it's as ruthlessly effective as it is beautiful.
Benteke would return to the role of scorer in the 51st minute when he once again made a generally very good defense look like mediocre U-14 players, sending Martin Skrtel the wrong way to find space in the box and winning the physical "battle" with Joe Allen before placing an inch-perfect shot into the corner. From there Villa were more than happy to sit back and soak up the pressure, which Liverpool were more than happy to provide. After a solid 35 minutes of Luis Suarez complain about the severe injustices which he'd endured, furious shouts for handballs that never were, and Brad Guzan masterfully trolling both the opposition and the Anfield faithful, Liverpool finally broke through when Steven Gerrard deflected Glen Johnson's shot (which was likely goal-bound in its own right) past Guzan to make it 3-1.
Even with less than ten minutes remaining that goal was enough to bring the nerves to the surface, but Villa wouldn't be bested again and Paul Lambert has his first real, signature win in the Premier League this season. This is a Liverpool side that's struggled mightily in many ways this season and they're clearly in a (relative) down period, but I think it's difficult to overstate how huge this win is for Aston Villa. Liverpool were rightly considered heavy favorites coming in and Anfield is still Anfield, and a young Villa side beat them in convincing fashion despite having to endure a tremendous amount of pressure all game long. The home side were not at their best in the defensive phase, but this was not by any means a poor showing from their midfield and attacking players. Aston Villa were just better in every phase, and this game felt like a culmination of all the improvement they've shown over the past few months.
Villa have two very tough games ahead, and they're far from safe in the league. There's a lot of work left to be done and almost certainly some tough patches still to come. But performances such as this one are no longer rare glimpses of what we all hope might be possible one day. This week, Villa went on the road to take on two very much in-form sides, and they won both games while outscoring the opposition 7-2. Can they keep this up all season? Almost certainly not. But this is a side that's clearly gaining in confidence, that believes they can play with-and beat-anyone in the league. They're continuing to come together as a team and forge an identity, and when they perform well it no longer feels like they're getting away with something.
This was only one win, but the expectations are clearly shifting as we speak. Those of us that remained optimistic when things weren't coming together were united by our belief that the goals would come, and that we'd have a much clearer picture of where this team really was when they did. Well, the goals are starting to come. Some consistency is still needed before anyone gets too cocky, but we've seen what they're capable of often enough that it's fair to begin to expect it more often. And this team is beginning to look like it expects it of themselves. For a team that's this young, that's an incredibly major step. And I'm cautiously optimistic that it's one that signals that we're well on the way to much brighter days.