Liverpool recorded a second successive Premier League victory to make their best start to a season in five years with a 1-0 win over Aston Villa. And they did so without talismanic forward Luis Suarez, who continues to be linked with a move away from the club this summer.
The Uruguayan is currently serving the remainder of his 10-game ban for biting Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanovic last April, with his team-mates seemingly coping just fine in his absence.
Daniel Sturridge’s superbly-taken goal ensured the Reds a 1-0 win over Aston Villa at Villa Park - the result suggesting that Brendan Rodgers’s men are back on track as they pursue Champions League football once again.
Liverpool last competed in the Champions League during the 2009/10 season after memorably lifting the trophy in 2005 and then making the final in 2007. Indifferent seasons under managers Roy Hodgson and Kenny Dalglish saw the Anfield club’s European hopes dashed, however, with seventh, sixth and eighth-place finishes in the Premier League between 2010 and 2012.
Northern Irishman Rodgers took charge of the Reds in June 2012 but could only steer them to another seventh-place finish as he began to implement his own style of play at the five-time European Champions.
The Anfield faithful – who have high expectations of their once-great club – have grown increasingly tired of not competing for Europe’s most prestigious club trophy, but it finally looks like their wait could be over.
Rodgers’s men were utterly dominant during the first period against Villa, with the hosts, who have endured one of the toughest starts of any team in the league this year - facing Arsenal, Chelsea and then Liverpool - looking rather fatigued as they struggled to keep up with their opponents’ flowing style of play.
Former Chelsea forward Sturridge scored the game’s only goal as he collected Jose Enrique’s pass, showing lightning-quick feet as he danced beyond Ron Vlaar and Antonio Luna before rounding Brad Guzan and slamming the ball home from a tight angle with his left foot.
Villa were a different side during the second period as they knocked on the Liverpool door time and time again – firing 17 shots at goal during the 90 minutes – but the visitors stood firm, displaying a resilience and determination that has deserted them in recent years, as they held out for victory that saw them extend their unbeaten run to 10 league matches.
The hard-fought victory over Villa followed a similar 1-0 win over Stoke City on the opening day of the season. The impressive Sturridge was the match winner on that occasion, too, with the young Englishman seemingly happy to bear the Reds’ goalscoring burden while the controversial Suarez watches from the sidelines.
The 23-year-old Sturridge netted 12 times in 16 games during the last campaign and has certainly picked up where he left off. And with the summer additions of Iago Aspas and Luis Alberto, who will provide much-needed support, the £12 million signing from Chelsea is sure to surpass that tally this term.
Not only do the Reds’ look more adept in attack, their defence also looks far more secure. The acquisition of Manchester City reject Kolo Toure looks to be paying dividends, with the Ivorian plugging the gap left by Anfield hero Jamie Carragher following the stalwart’s retirement.
Liverpool shipped 43 goals in the league last year, the second-highest amount since 1998-99, but Toure has quickly formed an impressive partnership with Daniel Agger at the heart of the Reds’ defence and, with two clean sheets from two games, the combination looks to be a recipe for success.
Simon Mignolet was another summer signing and was brought in as a replacement for Pepe Reina, who joined Italian side Napoli. Though doubts were initially cast over the goalkeeper as to whether he could cut it at a high-profile club, the Belgian certainly hasn't let anybody down - proving Liverpool's saviour against Stoke as he saved a late penalty before another solid performance against Villa.
With a few more games under his belt, the 25-year-old will grow in confidence and, with a determination to prove himself as one of the league's best keepers, expect more clean sheets to follow.PA-17059214
Premier League champions Manchester United travel to Anfield to face their bitter rivals when league action resumes on September 1. A victory for Rodgers’s Liverpool will only add weight to the argument that the Liverpudlian club can mount a top-four finish without Suarez should a move away from Anfield materialise, despite the Liverpool boss’ insistence that he is not for sale.
Of course, with just eight days to go in the transfer window, although football never fails to surprise, the likelihood of Suarez swapping Liverpool for Arsenal, Real Madrid or even Bayern Munich is slim.
And if Suarez, who found the net on 23 occasions during last season’s Premier League, does return to action with Liverpool then a top-four finish shouldn’t be their main target, it should be the very minimum achievement.