Whether innate optimism or the requirements of the job prompted Brendan Rodgers to assert that second place is not beyond Liverpool, his players picked the wrong day to expose the prediction to ridicule. They were not entirely responsible. Aston Villa, 17th at the start of play, mocked the pre-match form with a performance that stunned Anfield and possibly their own support.
Led by the inspired Belgium forward Christian Benteke and the accomplished Barry Bannan in midfield, Villa capitalised on a careless Liverpool display to produce arguably the finest result of Paul Lambert's brief reign as manager.
Beyond dispute was the vindication for Lambert's steadfast faith in his young team as they offered the composure, penetration and defensive strength that Liverpool lacked to leave Merseyside with a merited victory. Rodgers admitted defeat was "self-inflicted" from an Anfield perspective. For Villa, victory represented a potential turning point.
"The goals we scored and the way we defended was excellent," said Lambert. "I'm pretty sure Liverpool will give any team a game here with the players they've got and this atmosphere behind them, so it is a question of holding your nerve and we did that. The back three were terrific for us in how they put their bodies on the line."
Liverpool were lulled into a false sense of security for this was not the Villa of one win in their previous 16 away games and had scored fewer goals than any team in the top four divisions before kick off. "I didn't see it coming," admitted Rodgers, on the basis of his team's recent improvement. The visitors certainly lived dangerously early on, with their three-pronged central defence denying Liverpool with the final touch or a kind ricochet, but in terms of absorbing pressure and striking on the break, Villa delivered to perfection.
Benteke tested José Reina in the opening minute with a header from Bannan's free-kick, while the Liverpool goalkeeper made a fine sliding tackle to prevent Andreas Weimann converting Brett Holman's through ball. Otherwise it was all Liverpool pressure and no end product as Luis Suárez endured one of those frustrating afternoons on the ball and received precious little support. Liverpool's best player was the often maligned Stewart Downing, operating out of position at left-back against his former club.
Brad Guzan was forced into an early save when Downing's cross struck Eric Lichaj and deflected towards his own goal. But with Steven Gerrard stepping on the ball when well-placed, the ball striking Suarez's heel as he attempted to run clear and Joe Allen mis-controlling when free inside the Villa area, Liverpool could not make their possession tell. They were punished in emphatic style. Suárez lost the ball inside the Liverpool half and Villa built patiently down the left. Holman released Benteke and, with no defender coming close, the Belgium international found the bottom corner from 22 yards via the inside of Reina's right hand post.
Villa's second was even more impressive. Benteke and the tireless Andreas Weimann take the plaudits for their four passes that pierced the Liverpool defence and saw the Austrian forward sweep home Benteke's exquisite back-heel. The credit runs much deeper, however, with Bannan, Ashley Westwood and others involved in an 18-touch move before Weimann struck. As the goalscorer and creator celebrated in one corner, Westwood turned the other way to applaud the team-mates behind. It was the first time since 21st January that Villa had scored more than once away from home in the Premier League.
Liverpool inevitably laid siege to Guzan's goal in the second half, and were denied a clear penalty when Daniel Agger was hauled to the floor by Ciaran Clark at a corner, but were further behind before they gathered momentum. Holman easily dispossessed Joe Cole, a half-time replacement for Jonjo Shelvey, to release Benteke against a defence that could not deal with his upper-body strength and directness all afternoon. He waltzed inside Martin Skrtel, Allen bounced off the striker, and Benteke beat Reina convincingly for his eighth Villa goal of the season.
Gerrard grabbed a late consolation when he diverted Johnson's drive into the bottom corner and Benteke was fortunate his outstanding afternoon was not spoiled by a red card when he received only yellow for pushing the England right-back in the face. Nothing could remove the gloss from Villa's day.