Liverpool 3 Aston Villa 1

This has been coming. The good news is that Aston Villa managed to limit the damage. It could have been much worse.

During the second quarter of the match, Liverpool played football with such accuracy and pace, such style and intelligence, that no team in the world could have lived with it. It was then, in the 20 minutes or so before half-time, that Villa forfeited this match.

And so, the only unbeaten team in the Premiership, in England even, have finally tasted defeat. But it is to the credit of Villa, and particularly to their inspiring manager, Martin O'Neill, that they have gone this far.

Indeed, in the second half, Villa threatened a comeback that would have been in keeping with their previous nine Premiership results. Gabriel Agbonlahor's goal in the 56th minute, brilliantly taken after good work by Chris Sutton, was deserved.

"The players are downbeat and so they should be," O'Neill said. "We've been well beaten by a very good side and we have to learn from it. Now we need to go on another unbeaten run but I have to credit my players for how they've played in these last ten league games and it's important we shouldn't overlook that."

O'Neill is right about that but here at Anfield, where you can smell success as surely as you can smell money at Stamford Bridge, too many issues presented themselves for Villa to feel comfortable at this time.

1). Gavin McCann was missed more than O'Neill would ever wish to admit. Had McCann been present in midfield, it is hard to see how Liverpool could have dominated in quite the way that they did. In the event, Liverpool dictated the pace of play, with Momo Sissoko and Xabi Alonso producing passes and triangles that often defied mathematical logic.

2). Milan Baros is not, on this evidence, good enough to warrant a place in the Villa team. He is not as quick as Agbonlahor, not as clever as Chris Sutton, and not as composed as Juan Pablo Angel. It was no surprise, when the players emerged for the second half, that Baros had been replaced by Didier Agathe.

3). Agbonlahor is better up front than he is on the right of midfield. He barely touched the ball in the first half, when Villa were struggling in midfield, but he acquired more space when he was pushed up to play alongside Sutton.

4). Whose idea was it to sell Peter Crouch? For such a misconceived decision in the summer of 2004, David O'Leary should be eternally mocked as a clown. Crouch now leads the attack for Liverpool, made life uncomfortable for Liam Ridgewell and Olof Mellberg and has produced a fine ratio of goals for England.

Liverpool took the lead in the 31st minute through Dirk Kuyt, who controlled the ball on the chest inside the penalty area and struck it beyond Thomas Sorensen. The second goal, seven minutes later, came from Crouch, who scored on the turn after a cross by Steve Finnan.

The third goal, just before half-time, when Liverpool were spreading passes about with arrogant ease, was superlative and owed much to good movement off the ball. Gerrard, Kuyt and Crouch played one-touch football on the edge of the Villa box to set up Garcia, brilliant throughout on the left wing, who placed the ball home from close range.

O'Neill will no doubt have known that Liverpool are not comfortable when three goals ahead. They were in control against Galatasay and Reading in previous home matches and only just about won. Here, history repeated itself as Villa improved markedly.

With Sutton holding the ball up well, and Agbonlahor using his pace to effect, Liverpool had less control in midfield.

Agbonlahor scored when he latched on to a pass by Sutton and beat Jose Reina with ease. And later, at a pivotal point in the match, Sutton's header from close range was heading for the far corner until Reina stretched out a hand.

A goal then and Villa would have secured enough momentum to pursue a draw, but Reina's intervention was as important as had been the form of Sissoko and Xabi Alonso in the first half.

"The first half was as good as anything we have produced this season, apart maybe for the first 30 minutes against Galatasaray," Rafael Benitez, the Liverpool manager, said.

The mood inside the Villa dressing room could hardly have been more contrasting but at least the players were able to make a game of it. At least the likes of Isaiah Osbourne in mifield, Wilfred Bouma at left back, and Agbonlahor were able to show the necessary improvement.

There were positives here but they were overshadowed by what Liverpool did during a 20-minute period before half-time. But Villa are way ahead of schedule in their bid to reclaim their lost horizon.

Under O'Leary, they would never have composed themselves at half-time and would have lost badly. Under O'Neill, they acquired some self-respect and made a fight of it.

LIVERPOOL (4-4-2): Reina; Finnan, Carragher, Hyypia, Riise; Gerrard (Fowler 81), Alonso, Sissoko, Luis Garcia (Zenden 77); Kuyt, Crouch (Pennant 75). Substitutes: Martin, Agger.
ASTON VILLA (4-4-2): Sorensen; Hughes, Mellberg, Ridgewell, Bouma; Agbonlahor, Petrov, Osbourne (Davis 74), Barry; Angel (Sutton 46), Baros (Agathe 46). Substitutes: Taylor, Laursen.
Referee: Steve Bennett (Kent).
Scorers: Kuyt (31), 1-0; Crouch (38), 2-0; Luis Garcia (44), 3-0; Agbonlahor (56), 3-1.
Bookings: Villa - Mellberg (foul).
Attendance: 44,117.