It seems perverse to suggest that Paul Lambert's Aston Villa might have been disappointed with a draw away to Liverpool, but after going two up and controlling most of the first half only to see the hosts tie up the score with a controversial penalty, that's exactly what happened. In other words, we had a very strange game.
To say that the first half was a surprise would be an understatement. Villa have won at Anfield before -- a smash and grab raid conducted entirely on the counterattack last season a prime example -- but it's rare to see them dominate anyone, let alone a team with ambitions of finishing in the top four. And yet dominate they did.
The first chance came in the first minute. A Christian Benteke flick saw Gabby Agbonlahor free against Simon Mignolet only for the striker to stab a shot inches wide, leaving Paul Lambert fuming on the sidelines. But that turned out not to be an isolated incident. Ashley Westwood fired straight at the goalkeeper after an error from Steven Gerrard in midfield, and Ciaran Clark came agonisingly close when he got free on a corner and thumped a header off the base of the post.
While it remained 0-0, the missed opportunities looked decidedly wasteful; at 1-0 Villa were a great deal more relaxed. The opener came on the counterattack. Fabian Delph dispossessed Luis Suarez near the corner flag and worked the ball to Benteke, who set Agbonlahor in a race with Kolo Toure. There was only ever going to be one winner there, and the 27-year-old fired a cross to Andreas Weimann for an easy tap-in.
It didn't take long for the visitors to double their lead. Agbonlahor again came up with the assist, although this time he had plenty of help. Said help came from Mignolet, who got his fingertips to the delivery and succeeded in taking the ball off Glen Johnson's head and giving Benteke a free header into an empty net.
Liverpool needed a goal before halftime if they were going to have any hope of getting back into the game, but fortunately for the Reds their forwards were in far better shape than their back line. As the interval loomed and Villa took their foot off the pedal, Suarez fed Jordan Henderson in the box, and his deft flick was powered past Brad Guzan by Daniel Sturridge.
Halftime saw the hosts make a change, adding Lucas for Philippe Coutinho in an attempt to shore up a crumbling midfield, and soon after that Villa were forced into pulling off Agbonlahor -- who had injured himself just after the first goal when a tussle with Martin Skrtel ended up with the Villan flying into the Kop -- for new signing Grant Holt. But before Holt had a chance to endear himself to his new club, controversy struck.
There was nothing surprising about the ball which set Suarez free. Gerrard's always been capable of completely changing the game with an astute through ball, and his magnificent pass saw both Ron Vlaar and Ciaran Clark completely removed from the equation. All that was left was for Suarez to take the ball past Guzan and fall over under minimal (i.e. no) contact to win a penalty.
Villa were naturally furious, but it was a deft piece of gamesmanship by Suarez, who exploited a stupid decision by Guzan to force Mark Halsey into giving him the spot kick. Regardless of whether or not the penalty should have been given, it was converted, Gerrard finishing what he started with a well-placed shot.
At 2-2, Liverpool looked the more likely winners. It took an excellent save by Guzan from Henderson's 65th shot to keep the scores level, and Suarez fired a long-range free kick just wide with fifteen minutes to go. But for all of their possession, the hosts never put together a spell in which they truly kept Villa under the cosh. The visitors survived until the 90th minute, then held out for four more. And then the whistle blew, and Villa fans could stop hyperventilating.
Liverpool starting lineup (4-2-3-1): Simon Mignolet; Aly Cissokho, Martin Skrtel, Kolo Toure, Glen Johnson; Philippe Coutinho (Lucas Leiva 45' (Joe Allen 66')), Steven Gerrard, Jordan Henderson, Raheem Sterling; Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge.
Goals: Sturridge 45', Gerrard (p) 53'.
Aston Villa starting lineup (4-3-3): Brad Guzan; Ryan Bertrand (Antonio Luna 82'), Ciaran Clark, Ron Vlaar, Leandro Bacuna; Fabian Delph, Ashley Westwood, Karim El Ahmadi (Yacuba Sylla 62'); Gabriel Agbonlahor (Grant Holt 49'), Christian Benteke, Andreas Weimann.
Goals: Weimann 25', Benteke 36'.