Steven Gerrard warned Manchester United that in-form Liverpool are ‘pouncing on any mistakes’ made by the champions after scoring his first Premier League hat-trick in their 5-0 victory at home against Aston Villa.
Rafael Benítez’s side displayed the aura of a team that had scored four times in comprehensive victories against both Real Madrid and United in their last two outings and, after taking an eighth-minute lead at Anfield, it was clear they intended to repeat those feats at the very least. They appeared certain to close within a point of the leaders from the moment Dirk Kuyt drilled the ball past Brad Friedel after Gerrard’s free-kick had been headed against the bar by Xavi Alonso.
Fifth-placed Villa, reeling after earning just one point from five league matches and exiting the UEFA Cup, could provide no answers once two goals in six minutes towards the end of the half shattered their ambitions. First, Albert Riera rifled in off the bar, then Nigel Reo-Coker felled the winger in the box and Gerrard confidently converted from the penalty spot. A low free-kick and another penalty after the break completed the England midfielder’s treble and lifted the hosts above Chelsea – the side they will face in the last eight of the UEFA Champions League – and on to the heels of Sir Alex Ferguson’s charges, although Liverpool have played a game more.
Despite the magnitude of the scoreline, however, Gerrard was simply pleased the Reds were able to extend their winning streak and increase the pressure on the titleholders.
“It was more than we expected – we would have settled for 1-0 against a team that have been going really well this season,” said the 28-year-old. “They’ve had a dip in form of late and it was important that we got at them from the start. We got the early goal and built on it. It’s important not to get carried away. Manchester United are capable of winning all their remaining games. It’s important that we focus on what we’re doing, keep winning and keep putting the pressure on them. While they’re going into games knowing that we’re pouncing on any mistakes they make, it will be more difficult for them.”
The extent of the success nonetheless improved Liverpool’s goal difference, leaving them two goals better off than their Old Trafford rivals – a fact not lost on manager Benítez. “If you score more goals then you never know what might happen at the end of the season,” he stated, adding that the fitness of his side has also stood them in good stead lately. “We’re improving and we have confidence, but there are still a lot of games to play and we must keep our feet on the ground. We were playing this way at the start of the season, but maybe other teams are more physically tired now and there is more space for us and more freedom.”
Elsewhere on Sunday, Wigan Athletic and Manchester City climbed the standings thanks to 1-0 home victories. A late Ben Watson lob gave Wigan, now seventh, the points against Hull City while Mark Hughes’ charges edged Sunderland. Robinho missed an early penalty following an incident that saw George McCartney sent off for the visitors, but his blushes were spared when Micah Richards headed the only goal after the break to move the UEFA Cup hopefuls back into the top half.