Houllier's unhappy Anfield return
Gerard Houllier felt the warmth of The Kop amid sub-zero temperatures as he made his return to Anfield - but was soon experiencing an icy blast of harsh reality as Liverpool inflicted a damaging defeat on his Aston Villa side.
Houllier, as expected, was well received by supporters who still respect the successes he brought them during a six-year tenure. He touched the "This Is Anfield" sign as he made his way to the familiar territory of the technical area and enjoyed the strains of "You'll Never Walk Alone".
Houllier has a host of happy Anfield memories. This game will not be one of them as the struggle he is enduring in his effort to reignite Aston Villa was exposed in painful detail.
Houllier applauds the Liverpool fans on his return to Anfield. Photo: AFP
The only minor victory he enjoyed over Liverpool counterpart Roy Hodgson came in the closing stages of Villa's 3-0 defeat when he heard his name sung with affection by The Kop. Hodgson is not yet afforded this luxury. Indeed, he is still treated almost as if he does not exist by his own supporters.
Houllier made no attempt to apply cosmetics to an ugly Villa performance and continues to have minimal impact on results on the pitch. Villa have managed only two wins in the last 12 games and occupy a Premier League position that is too close to the relegation zone.
The Frenchman will be attempting to lay foundations behind the scenes but the brutal truth is that Villa are currently a pale shadow of the side that occupied the upper reaches of the table regularly under Martin O'Neill.
Villa may have arrived at Liverpool depleted by injury and minus the suspended Ashley Young but this was no excuse for their dreadful showing as Hodgson's side made light of the absence of both Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher because of injury, as well as Fernando Torres, who was with his wife after she went into labour.
Villa looked a team ready to be beaten almost from the kick-off and this display will not help Houllier win the hearts of those fans who remain sceptical about his appointment. But on a day when Newcastle United were roundly, and rightly, condemned for their hasty sacking of Chris Hughton, patience is required.
Houllier needs wins swiftly, though, and the mixture of scorn and sarcasm heaped on Villa by their hardy travelling support did not send out good signals.
The true time for judgement will come when Houllier has had the chance to fashion a team that is more in his own image - and this will call for heavy backing from American owner Randy Lerner.
The Houllier stamp during his time at Liverpool was ruthlessly efficient defence and cast-iron mental strength, both qualities conspicuously absent in this Villa side.
Brad Friedel, now 39, is not the goalkeeping force he once was. Photo: PA
The major worry must be that Houllier appears to have taken charge of a defence in terminal decline. Richard Dunne and James Collins, so solid in the past, now look vulnerable and worryingly pedestrian. Even goalkeeper Brad Friedel, so reliable for so long, has started to look frayed around the edges.
Villa's defensive discipline went walkabout as Liverpool struck twice in 16 minutes through David Ngog and Ryan Babel, with Maxi Rodriguez rounding off the win with a wonderful third goal.
Houllier has a batch of talented young players and is willing to use them but youthful enthusiasm is swiftly sapped in a struggle and they must be handled with care.
The only stars of the show for Villa were their fans, who illuminated a subdued night by turning on their team in light-hearted manner, although there was real venom in the blast they delivered towards the players at half-time.
"It's Just Like Watching Brazil," they lied as Villa slumped, while cries of "Ole" greeted passages of roughly two passes. Good knockabout stuff but the satire could not disguise the frustration.
Villa face Chelsea, Tottenham and Manchester City in their next five games, so things may well get worse before they get better for Houllier. But it would ludicrous if he was under pressure at such an early stage after only taking over in September. And unlike Magpies owner Mike Ashley, Lerner has shown he possesses lots of common sense.
For Liverpool and Hodgson, this was an impressive win at reduced strength and hinted once more at recent improvements. True, West Ham United and Aston Villa presented lame opposition but they were put away with the minimum of fuss, while there was still plenty to please Hodgson in defeat at Spurs.
Hodgson has suffered criticism this season, plenty of it justified, so he is entitled to feel a measure of satisfaction at a victory that moves Liverpool up the table.
The often derided figure of Babel looked happy in a central role, while Raul Meireles is now producing the quality that made him so highly regarded at Porto. Lucas was influential alongside the Portuguese as the Gerrard-sized hole in Liverpool's midfield was filled with comfort on this particular occasion.
David Ngog celebrates after puttign Liverpool in front. Photo: AP
No such joy for Houllier as his hopes of a winning return to Anfield were reduced to rubble. And this performance suggests it will take major and painstaking reconstruction by the former Lyon boss to get anywhere near the successes he enjoyed on Merseyside.