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Liverpool suffer Villa stalemate

Rafael Benitez was left in no doubt as to the depth of ill-feeling he has caused at Aston Villa this summer with his failed attempts to lure Gareth Barry to Liverpool as his perfect start to the new campaign ended in a 0-0 stalemate at Villa Park on Sunday.

The Liverpool manager was public enemy number one to the vast majority of the 41,000 crowd and also had to suffer the added anguish of losing key striker Fernando Torres to a hamstring injury that could keep last season's top scorer out of action for two to three weeks.

But Martin O'Neill's Aston Villa were unable to capitalise on the delicious irony of facing Benitez on the eve of the transfer window closing and generate a victory that would have been intensely sweet and end a miserable record against the side from Anfield.

It has now been almost a decade since Villa triumphed in a league game against Liverpool and even the second half introduction of new 12-million-pound signing James Milner was not enough to inspire an end to that depressing sequence.

Barry's relationship with O'Neill and his legion of Aston Villa has been repaired to such an extent that the Ulsterman is willing to offer him a new contract.

There is little prospect that the same will happen between O Neill and Benitez, whose inability to meet Villa's 18-million-pound valuation of Barry caused such conflict within Villa Park for the last three months.

The Spaniard was jeered all the way to his vantage point prior to the game and baited throughout, while O'Neill followed some 100 paces behind, before heading straight to Benitez for a handshake in the technical area. It was formal, but certainly not friendly.

The hostilities rarely transmitted themselves on to the field and the most telling incident of the opening 45 minutes was Liverpool's loss of Fernando Torres with a hamstring injury, which is likely to keep the Spaniard out of international duty next week.

Norwegian John Carew came close to breaking the deadlock, rounding off a flowing Villa move, involving Barry and Ashley Young, with a low shot that was blocked by the feet of Pepe Reina, while the departure of Torres and the absence of Steven Gerrard's driving force, blunted Liverpool's threat.

Xabi Alonso saw a rare Liverpool effort deflect off Nicky Shorey the Aston Villa left-back after he had been set up by Keane and former Liverpool goalkeeper Brad Freidel had to top over Andrew Dossena's cross-shot from under his crossbar.

Benitez was jeered every time he emerged from his dug-out, but he was enraged 15 minutes from full time when referee Martin Atkinson failed to award a penalty against Nigel Reo-Coker for a challenge on Robbie Keane on the edge of the area.

The Republic of Ireland international was sent racing clear by Javier Mascherano, but was unable to punish Villa and give Benitez the last laugh on his tormentors. It would have gone some way to making up for failing to sign Barry this summer.

Sun 31 August, 2008
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