FULL TIME: Liverpool 2-2 Aston Villa
Well, I very much doubt either team will be particularly happy with the way that panned out. Liverpool were so bad for the majority of that game, a point flatters them, but they still had half an hour to force a much-needed win, and couldn't manage it. Any lingering dreams of the title should be put to bed: they're now eight points off the pace, and their defence is an egregious disgrace, to say nothing of the midfield. Meanwhile Villa were superlative in the first half, but took their foot off the gas in the second period, and now look. Last word to Ian Kemp: "A balloon with a face drawn on it would be preferable to our current left back. Cissokho makes Paul Konchesky look like Roberto Carlos."
90 min +3: Suarez, tight by the byline to the left of goal, hammers a shot straight at Guzan, to see if his pinball luck's in. It isn't, the ball pinging out to the other wing.
90 min +2: Toure allows himself to be bullied away from a long ball by Holt. Villa make nothing of the resulting territorial gain, but they're happy to see the clock tick down.
90 min +1: Liverpool have all the possession but they're going absolutely nowhere with it.
90 min: There will be four added minutes of this. Enough time for Matt Loten to expand on the Cissokho debate: "Does it seem strange to anyone else that Brendan Rodger's footballing philosophy only extends as far back as his holding midfielders? Between Sakho, Toure, Cissokho and Skrtel it appears that Liverpool's defensive coaching consists entirely of practising rugby conversions and brutally wrestling whoever's standing in front of them to the ground. It's almost like they've tried to stitch Stoke and Arsenal together with an unseemly, Frankenstein result."
89 min: Villa look to have settled for the draw, but Liverpool continue to press. Vlaar beats Suarez in a foot race as the striker tears after a long ball down the inside-right channel. Just.
88 min: Bacuna is yellow carded for timewasting down by his own right-hand corner flag, the ball having long flown in the Kop for a goal kick.
87 min: Gerrard slides a lovely pass down the right for Sturridge. The striker has time and space, but his curled cross into the centre is weak, allowing Guzan to pluck the ball from the sky with a yawn.
86 min: Sturridge reaches the byline down the left, and pulls back at speed for the inrushing Suarez. But Clark sticks out a telescopic leg to intercept, and the danger is over. Brilliant defence.
85 min: Villa push Liverpool back a bit. Bacuna, in an awful lot of space down the right, thinks about shooting but crosses instead. Benteke, on the left-hand edge of the area, thinks about shooting but does nothing whatsoever. The visitors had their hosts looking very nervous there, and let them off the hook.
83 min: Gerrard so nearly finds Sterling down the right with a 60-yard reverse Hollywood pass, but the ball skids off the turf and out of play. Guzan is very happy to shepherd it into the Kop.
82 min: Bertrand is replaced by the man he replaced, Luna.
80 min: Sturridge, frustration now his top note, shoves Bacuna lightly in the chest. Bacuna flops to the floor in Shot By Several Guns All At Once mode. It's nothing, really, but then you're not meant to raise your hands. Villa want the referee to take action; the referee points out that these are two grown men. We play on.
79 min: Skrtel drops a shoulder and, momentarily turning into Garrincha, dances past two challenges down the inside-right channel. It can't last. And doesn't. But for one moment, anything seemed possible for humankind.
77 min: Suarez buys himself a free kick, 30 yards out, level with the left-hand post, and nearly lashes it into the top-left corner. Guzan was beaten, the ball inches away. That was a brilliant effort.
75 min: This Liverpool defence is a piece of work. There's no way they'll be winning the title with it, and the Champions League might prove a push too. They fall asleep collectively, allowing Delph to reach the byline on the left. He fires a low drive into the middle. It hits Cissokho, who rises from his slumber and hacks clear, much in the same way a man would involuntarily hammer the snooze function on his radio alarm upon being suddenly woken up with a raging hangover.
74 min: Suarez reaches the byline down the right and clips a cross in the general direction of Sterling, coming in at the far post. But he's flagged offside. Not sure about that, but there's the linesman who called Weimann's goal brilliantly in the first half, so let's give him the benefit of the doubt. "Watching Cissokko play, I'm finding myself nostalgic about the 'Downing at left-back' phase," writes Matt Dony. "Or even Konchesky. Help!" It's a wonderfully strange game, football, isn't it?
72 min: Corner for Villa down the right, after Henderson bundles a free kick from the left wing out of play. Holt meets the set piece with his head, but it arcs lamely wide left of the target. After a poor start to the half, Villa are getting right back into this game. Lucas, or the lack of him, is the key here.
71 min: Holt, in a tight position down the right, clips a cross into the centre towards Benteke. The ball nearly finds the big striker, 12 yards out, but Johnson stretches himself to eyebrow clear.
70 min: Cissokho is a very strange player. He almost never looks in control of the ball, but nevertheless causes an awful lot of bother as he rampages down the wing in his fruitless efforts to trap it. Here he nearly breaks into the area, with team-mates in the middle, but Vlaar is across to shepherd the ball out of play and into the Kop for a goal kick.
69 min: A small lull in proceedings, the first of the evening. Anyone fancy a quick drink? "I've discovered something new tonight," boasts Phil Sawyer. "If you pour yourself a drink (in my case a vodka and ginger) and happen to be chewing on a piece of Black Mint Airwaves, the drink tastes of Pernod. A handy tip for if you've ever run out of Pernod but fancy a tipple and only have vodka, ginger and aniseed chewing gum to hand. I offer this information for free." Go on, readers, nip to the kitchen and fix yourself one. I'll kill time until you get back.
67 min: Liverpool are on the front foot, if not looking particularly impressive. Sterling makes good for the Villa area, Suarez's run to the left opening up a load of space for him. But he chokes the shot, a dreadful effort squirming wide right from the edge of the box.
66 min: Lucas can't continue. He's replaced by Allen.
65 min: Sturridge, the ball at his feet on the edge of the Villa D, touches back to Henderson, whose heatseeker towards the bottom right is brilliantly parried by Guzan. Sterling can't turn in the loose ball, and Suarez eventually concedes a foul.
64 min: From the restart, Johnson rakes a gorgeous pass down the right. It drops to Suarez, who looks to lash the bouncing ball home from the edge of the area. His shot flies straight at Guzan. That would have been some strike had it gone in, but these days, such is Suarez's form, you half expected it to.
62 min: El Ahmadi is replaced by Sylla. Meanwhile Lucas is down receiving treatment on his right knee. This doesn't look particularly good for the Brazilian, who has only been going for 17 minutes.
61 min: Vlaar steps on the ball in his own area and nearly lets Suarez in, but recovers well. Villa flood up the other end. Delph, 25 yards out, jinks past Lucas with the help of a clever dragback, then curls a shot towards the bottom right that would have beaten Mignolet were it on target. And it was so nearly on target. Flying inches wide of the right-hand post, it was a brilliant effort and deserved a goal.
59 min: Villa pump a free kick into the Liverpool area, looking for Benteke. For once, the home side clear without flying into a flat spin. Up the other end, Sterling lumps a first-time cross from the right wing miles into the Kop, in a misguided attempt to find Suarez racing in at the far post.
57 min: This game is going to turn into an end-to-end nonsense now, I'll be bound. Here's Sturridge dropping a shoulder, gliding in from the right before threading a weak shot from distance straight down Guzan's yap.
56 min: Liverpool are still awful at the back, mind you. Cissohko's lame clearing header falls to Holt, who hesitates when ten yards out. His snap shot is blocked.
55 min: Whatever next? How about Suarez trying to score a quick free kick from the halfway line? His effort is wayward, but what ambition!
GOAL! Liverpool 2-2 Aston Villa (Gerrard pen 54)
He batters the spot kick into the right-hand side of the net. Liverpool, who have been appalling for the most part tonight, are suddenly level! And there's plenty of this game left. Whatever next?
53 min: PENALTY TO LIVERPOOL! Gerrard rakes a long ball down the inside-left channel. Suarez scampers after it, and goes over a nothing challenge from the outrushing Guzan. Not much contact, but you won't see many players turning down an invitation to flop like that. There was cover, so no sending off. Gerrard, having set the wheels of this move in motion, now has the chance to complete his redemption after that first-half nightmare!
52 min: Bacuna races down the right. He should be cut off by Lucas, but the midfielder hesitates. Bacuna continues on his way. The ball's shuttled into the centre, where Holt prods in a very uncertain fashion towards Mignolet.
49 min: Another debutant for Villa: enter Grant Holt, who comes on for a limping Agbonlahor. The winger has never been on his game since being bundled into the Kop while going shoulder to shoulder with Skrtel in the first half. That's his race run.
48 min: Bertrand earns himself a debut booking for a late clip on Sterling. The referee indicates that the player's been at the niggly fouls all evening, and he's now lost patience.
47 min: Liverpool have come out with renewed belief, and a ball's hoicked into the Villa box from the right. It bounces over the head of the out-of-position Bacuna, but though Suarez can take the loose ball down, he can't guide an ambitious chip back into the right-hand corner. Still, they'll take another 43 minutes like the first two in this half. They'll need them, if they're to get back into this.
46 min: Gerrard is pushed forward now, with Lucas doing the job his captain wasn't cut out for. The pair nearly combine immediately, the new man rolling a pass down the inside right for Gerrard, but there's a bit too much on the ball.
And we're off again! Liverpool get the ball rolling for the second period, with Lucas coming on as expected for the hopelessly out-of-form Coutinho. No changes for Villa, and why would there be? What a half of football this could be!
Some half-time primal-scream therapy, which fans of Steven Gerrard should not read:
"This game is proof positive that a manager can lose a match before the team steps on the pitch," cries Paul Ewart. "A number of reds wondered whether Brendan Rodgers would have the cojones to drop Gerrard when everyone was fit. We have our answer. He hasn't and it's cost us. Allen and Lucas on for Gerrard and Coutinho please. We've played three in midfield all season, Villa play three in midfield. What on earth was Brendan thinking? I'm furious. If we go on to win this game it will be no thanks to Brendan."
"As soon as I saw the Liverpool line up I knew this would happen," begins Darren Bland, and we have no option to believe him. "Brendan wants Gerrard to be Pirlo? They might both be ageing midfield troubadours but he seems to have forgotten that Pirlo doesn't give the damn ball away."
"Can someone, for the love of God, tell me what Gerrard is supposed to be doing out there?" sighs Sally Officer. "Is Rodgers big enough to acknowledge he's made a mistake and hook him? Questions, questions."
Answers, answers coming your way soon. Of course, if there's to be a classic narrative to this MBM, Mr Stevie will take the bull by the horns and score a redemptive hat-trick in the second half. Which is not to say that Villa won't still win, 5-4, mind you. Just look at the state of that defence!
Anyone within striking distance of The Atkinson in Southport on Friday 7 February should get themselves a ticket for The Bill Shankly Story. Written and presented by the author John Keith, it also stars former Liverpool heroes Ian St John, Chris Lawler and Ian Callaghan, who will be talking "revealingly and compellingly" about the man who did the club a turn or two back in the Sixties and Seventies. Details: www.theatkinson.co.uk
Meanwhile, Jonathan Wilson's got a new book out, Liverpool fans! The Anatomy of Liverpool: A History In Ten Matches. Here it is!
HALF TIME: Liverpool 1-2 Aston Villa.
Well, it's fair to say that Liverpool goal hadn't been coming. But they've got it, and are only a goal behind after an inept display which could easily have seen Villa go in at the break with a three or four-goal lead. As it is, well, look. But Brendan Rodgers really needs to do something about that midfield, or expect Villa to apply more pain in the second period. One way or another, it's going to be interesting! Don't go flipping, now!
GOAL! Liverpool 1-2 Aston Villa (Sturridge 45 +2)
Villa have been brilliant, but they switch off as the half enters stoppage time. Liverpool are allowed to knock it around in front of the Villa box. Suarez shapes to shoot, then flicks a pass down the inside-right to Henderson, who backflicks to spring Sturridge into the area. Guzan rushes out to narrow the angle, but the striker flicks an insouciant effort into the left-hand side of the net. A lifeline for the home side!
45 min: Coutinho sees a shot from distance deflected wide right for a corner. From the set piece, Suarez has the ball to the left of the D, and looks to fashion a shot towards the top right, but it's deflected and ends up in the arms of Guzan. Liverpool look defeated already. This has been a comprehensive undressing.
43 min: Anfield is stunned into silence. The travelling Villa support are only too happy to fill it with ironic chants of "We're going to win the league".
40 min: Liverpool's frustration in microcosm: Suarez slips Cissokho into space down the left. He's in the area, with Suarez and Sturridge in the middle, screaming for a return. Cissokho shanks a hilariously appalling shot miles left of the target, and receives dog's abuse as a result. It's appropriate; this Liverpool side is a complete dog's dinner. The defence is all over the place, while Steven Gerrard is a complete liability in this defensive role. He's got many talents, but holding together a midfield with patience and discipline isn't one of them.
GOAL! Liverpool 0-2 Aston Villa (Benteke 37)
It's four in four for Christian Benteke. Agbonlahor zips down the right and whips a cross into the middle. The out-of-form Mignolet flaps, misses, and with Toure and Skrtel in the middle with confused looks plastered on their coupons, Benteke is able to stoop to cushion a simple header into an empty net. What a farce for the home side. Like Villa care; they've been brilliant.
36 min: Henderson attempts a looping pass down the inside left for Suarez, but there's too much pace on the ball. It's difficult to know who reacted with more irritation, Suarez or the Anfield faithful. OK, no it isn't, you know full well who had the proper funk on.
34 min: The last few minutes have been a little better from Liverpool, who have been stung into action by the opening goal. Suarez dances into the area down the left after determined if leggy work from Cissokho along the wing. He's upended - fairly - by a sliding tackle from Vlaar. They need more of this. Villa look utterly comfortable still, even if they've shown less up front since taking the lead.
31 min: Suarez flicks a ball down the right to release Sterling into some space. The winger whips the ball into the middle, where Guzan makes a song and dance of parrying. Vlaar eventually steps in to help him clear. Liverpool injected a little pace into their play there. They've been appalling. Gerrard and Henderson have no control whatsoever of the midfield. Lucas has never been the same player since his knee injury, but they're missing him nonetheless.
28 min: In fact, Weimann was onside, Skrtel's hanging leg playing him on. A brilliant decision by the linesman. Liverpool attack. Bacuna's elbow clatters into Suarez's chin, accidentally it should be stressed. As Suarez rolls around in agony, Sturridge attempts a Le Tissier flick and volley from 25 yards. It's not too far off finding the top left, but only in the context of the shot's difficulty.
27 min: Henderson attempts to bustle clear into the Villa area, but Liverpool will have to do better than that. Villa go up the other end, winning a corner down the left that's easily dealt with by Mignolet, if not necessarily by the rest of his defenders.
GOAL!!! Liverpool 0-1 Aston Villa (Weimann 26)
Delph releases Agbonlahor down the left. The winger performs a simple stepover to reach the six-yard box, then fires a low cross into the middle. Weimann slides in to poke home. He's probably an inch or two offside, but the flag stays down, and Villa deserve this. They've been as brilliant going forward as Liverpool have been awful.
23 min: Westwood, on the left, rakes a diagonal pass to the far post, where El Ahmadi, near the byline to the right of goal, Isle-Of-Mans himself to bicycle-kick the ball back into the danger zone. Benteke forces a corner. It's whipped in from the right. Clark, 12 yards out, beats a sleeping Johnson to the ball and guides a powerful header towards the right of goal. The ball balloons off the post and is hacked clear. Liverpool are hanging on here.
21 min: El Ahmadi is booked for a late slide on Cissokho as the defender looks to break down the left. He can have no complaints. Coutinho floats the free kick towards the Villa box. The ball breaks to Sturridge to the right of the D; he looks to curl one into the top left, but overcooks it. Goal kick. That's a little bit better from Liverpool, who have otherwise been totally dysfunctional so far.
20 min: Free kick to Villa down the right. The ball's whipped to Benteke, level with the far post, eight yards out. The delivery is an inch or two too high; were it on the money, the striker was surely burying a header. Liverpool's defence is a complete shambles.
18 min: Clark is booked for a tug on Sterling down the right. Gerrard, who along with Coutinho is suffering a creative shocker in these early stages, none of their passes finding their range, hoicks the free kick out of play to the left of goal. Villa flood up the other end, Weimann scoring three rugby points with a dismal effort from a decent position, 20 yards out. But that's Villa's fifth dig goalwards, according to the statman, and Liverpool have yet to do anything up front.
16 min: Westwood, in acres of space just outside the Liverpool area, hammers a shot straight down Mignolet's throat. A couple of feet either side, and that would have been the opening goal. The chance came from a woeful miscontrol by Gerrard, who is surely not up to this defensive midfielder gig.
14 min: Villa are pushing their hosts back towards the Kop. Toure shanks a clearance out of play down the left, the ball spinning back towards the corner flag. Villa don't do much with the throw, wasting their territorial advantage, but they're certainly on the front foot here. They've enjoyed 55% of the possession so far.
13 min: Henderson lumps the ball straight down the middle. Suarez chases, and is bundled over by Clark. There are covering defenders, but that should be a free kick. However, Suarez's theatrical yelp of agony seems to have irritated the referee, with his reputation going before him. A knee in the back of the leg, but no decision.
11 min: Sterling has his first run at Bertrand down the right. The opening rubber is won with ease by the Villa new boy, who stands firm.
9 min: Gerrard, Toure, Skrtel and Sterling have all taken turns to look very nervous in possession while deep in their own half. Westwood tries to release Weimann down the inside-right channel, but overcooks the pass, with the very thin red line backtracking in a panic. Liverpool are all over the shop.
8 min: Anfield is quiet. Anfield is tense. Villa will be very pleased with the way these opening exchanges have panned out. In the old Roy Evans days, Liverpool once found themselves three goals to the good by this stage.
6 min: A bit better from Liverpool, though only a bit, as Sterling is bundled over by Delph, 25 yards out to the right. The free kick's swung to the far post, where Bacuna guides behind for a corner with his right elbow, that arm wafting sadly in the breeze. Liverpool claim a penalty, but not with any great conviction. You'll have seen them given all right. Nothing comes of the corner.
4 min: Agbonlahor flicks on to Weimann down the inside-right channel. Weimann finds his shot from the edge of the area blocked, but the ball ricochets to Agbonlahor, who rushes down the channel and into the box. He's kept away from danger by a combination of Henderson and Skrtel, both in Desperate Mode, but this is a fine opening by Villa. And a dreadful one by Liverpool.
3 min: Liverpool haven't given up any more chances yet, though Benteke has looked threatening under two more high balls. "My God! What sort of lineup is that?" splutters Paul Ewart, taking one glance at Brendan Rodgers' latest piece of work. "Gerrard as the only defensive midfielder? Terrifying. Expect a blizzard of goals! I'll gladly eat my hat should the game end 0-0. (My hat is made of chocolate.)"
52 seconds: Aston Villa should be a goal up. Bacuna launched a long ball upfield from the right. Benteke easily beat Toure to a header, 30 yards out, flicking on for Agbonlahor, racing into the area just to the right of the D. He flicks the ball past the advancing Mignolet, but only into the side netting to the right of goal. What a miss by Agbonlahor! What hilariously inept defending by Liverpool! Another eight-goal thriller, anyone?
And we're off! After a blast of Rodgers and Hammerstein piped through a Merseybeat filter, the game begins, Aston Villa kicking off and playing towards the Kop in the first half. The ball's immediately hoicked out of play down the left. For the away side, the only way is up. "Not a huge vote of confidence for Antonio Luna, straight out of the team for a match against title contenders, after maybe two training sessions for Bertrand," opines Elliot Carr-Barnsley. Aye, poor Luna. But I guess if you're a Champions League winning left back, you can walk into any team in the world. Djimi Traoré being the exception proving that particular rule.
The teams are out! Liverpool are in their trademark red kit ...
... while Aston Villa, their normal claret shirts clashing, have changed into their alternative strip of claret-and-white quarters. Was it worth bothering?
"Today's match is almost an archetype of the kind that assesses Liverpool's progress," begins Nick Pettigrew. "We've scored prolifically at home and have our two best strikers available and Villa are playing like they've lost a bet. It's precisely this kind of game that Bad Old Liverpool would get battered 3-0 in." Well, it's only just over a year ago when Christian Benteke and Andreas Weimann crushed Liverpool into a powder so fine, you could have sieved them through a sock. Benteke has three in three against Liverpool, so will be hopeful of causing them similar problems tonight. Another three-goal haul for Villa? Nick will be hoping Liverpool will continue their undoubted improvement since that particular shellacking, and to soothe his pre-match nerves, let's point out that Stewart Downing is no longer one of the men he's forced to entrust with his emotions.
Opening credits and theme tune
Liverpool: Mignolet, Johnson, Toure, Skrtel, Cissokho, Sterling, Henderson, Gerrard, Coutinho, Sturridge, Suarez.
Subs: Brad Jones, Alberto, Aspas, Moses, Lucas, Allen, Kelly.
Aston Villa:Guzan, Bacuna, Vlaar, Clark, Bertrand, El Ahmadi, Westwood, Delph, Weimann, Benteke, Agbonlahor.
Subs: Holt, Helenius, Albrighton, Steer, Luna, Sylla, Gardner.
Referee: Jon Moss (W Yorkshire)
Aston Villa, then. Aston Villa, Aston Villa, Aston Villa. [sigh] What are we going to do with you?
It's very difficult to know which Villa will turn up at Anfield today. The one that's lost six of their last eight matches, including a humiliating FA Cup defeat at home to third-tier Sheffield United? The one that won at Arsenal, Southampton and a resurgent Sunderland? Or a brand new version, bolstered by new signings Grant Holt and Ryan Bertrand, ready to register a third 3-1 win at Anfield in five seasons?
As for the hosts? They're on something of a hot scoring streak at Anfield. Since being held goalless and beaten by Southampton in September, they've played seven times in the league at home, putting two past Hull City, three past Crystal Palace and Cardiff City, four past West Bromwich Albion, Fulham and West Ham United, and five past Norwich City. But Villa are better than all those defeated teams - and though they were beaten by Liverpool at home in the second game of this campaign, they thoroughly outplayed Brendan Rodgers' side here last season. This could be an interesting one.
Kick off: 5.30pm.