Sturridge lifts Liverpool past Villa
BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND (AP)
The Birmingham-born striker, who started his youth career with Villa, delivered a moment of pure quality midway through the first half, receiving Jose Enrique's left-wing pass before dancing past two defenders, rounding Brad Guzan and transferring his balance to poke home with his left foot.
It came after the England marksman fired the Reds to a 1-0 opening-day win over Stoke, leaving Brendan Rodgers' side with six points from their first two league games for the first time since 2008. Liverpool finished second to Manchester United that season and, although that appears unlikely this term, Rodgers can only be delighted with the start his side have made without the suspended Luis Suarez.
For Villa, it was their third game in a tough opening eight days of the new season after victory at Arsenal and defeat at Chelsea, and they appeared off the pace in the opening 40 minutes against a sharper Reds side. A late flurry at the end of the first half set the tone for a second period in which the hosts dominated and could well have taken a share of the spoils. Liverpool's new goalkeeper Simon Mignolet, who saved a late penalty against Stoke, denied the in-form Christian Benteke with a superb one-handed stop.
There was plenty of cause for optimism for a youthful Villa side who have already showed signs of development from the one which struggled against relegation last term, despite failing to keep a Premier League clean sheet for a club-record 25th match. Villa manager Paul Lambert handed full debuts to summer signings Jores Okore and Leandro Bacuna, while Rodgers kept faith with the starting XI who saw off Stoke.
Both sides looked to feel each other out inside the opening 15 minutes, with the visitors showing the greater incision, although neither goalkeeper was forced into action. Philippe Coutinho sent an effort high and wide after good work down the left by Enrique as the Reds started to dominate possession.
And it was no surprise when they made the breakthrough after 21 minutes. Sturridge started the move before losing his marker, Okore, and when Enrique's pass from the left was dummied by Coutinho on the edge on the area, the former Chelsea striker showed great footwork to evade two defenders as well as Guzan and convert.
The goal only further boosted Liverpool's confidence while the hosts were chasing shadows at times. With the home faithful becoming slightly frustrated, Bacuna sent Villa's first effort harmlessly wide after 32 minutes before Benteke's control let him down at a crucial moment.
And then with half-time approaching, Villa had two decent openings. Benteke finally forced Mignolet into action, tipping the Belgium international's effort around a post, before Andreas Weimann saw his shot deflected narrowly over the crossbar.
Lambert's side started the second half with more purpose and, roared on by a sell-out Villa Park crowd, Ashley Westwood twice fired over from distance. Importantly, however, Mignolet was barely troubled by the time Liverpool boss Rodgers handed a debut to new loan signing Aly Cissokho in the 69th minute.
Benteke and Weimann then headed wide before an unmarked Gabriel Agbonlahor volleyed off target from 12 yards having been presented with a great chance to level. Matt Lowton finally forced Mignolet into action from long distance before Liverpool's summer signing from Sunderland produced a superb 86th-minute stop to keep out Benteke.
Karim El Ahmadi headed on to fellow substitute Nicklas Helenius and he found Benteke, whose powerful drive was brilliantly pushed around a post by Mignolet - ensuring Villa have now beaten the Reds just once in their last 16 Premier League meetings at Villa Park.