LIVERPOOL, England — Liverpool received a reminder of how tough life will be without last season's two leading goalscorers in a 1-0 loss to Aston Villa in the Premier League on Saturday.
Gabriel Agbonlahor put Villa in front after 11 minutes at Anfield and the second-placed visitors clung on to preserve their unbeaten start to the season.
"We came here with tactics to frustrate Liverpool and try and nick a goal, and they came off perfectly for us," Agbonlahor told British broadcaster Sky Sports.
With Daniel Sturridge sidelined for up to three weeks with a thigh injury, it meant Liverpool started a game without the England striker or Luis Suarez, who was sold in the offseason to Barcelona, for the first time since December 2012.
Last season the pair scored more than 50 league goals between them so it was immediately apparent where the Reds were most likely to be under the greatest strain.
Mario Balotelli was brought in by Liverpool last month from AC Milan to provide additional firepower but he appeared to spend much of the first half either being kicked or trying to avoid being kicked on his home debut by Philippe Senderos.
The Swiss defender got away with at least one hack at the former Manchester City striker off the ball which would have likely resulted in a red card had referee Lee Mason or either of his assistants seen it.
Whether or not such treatment knocked Balotelli off his stride, it was the latter stages of the first half before he started to show signs of life with one dipping shot dropping just wide of the post.
Balotelli also created a good chance for Adam Lallana, making his debut after injury in pre-season delayed his first appearance since an offseason move. But the former Southampton midfielder drilled a half-volley just wide from Balotelli's lay-off on the edge of the area.
By that time Liverpool were already behind after mistakes by their two center backs.
First, Mamadou Sakho tried to control the ball close to his own goal-line instead of playing safe and ended up conceding a corner, from which Dejan Lovren got the wrong side of Senderos to create a scramble from which Agbonlahor scored in the ninth minute.
The goal was against the run of play after Lazar Markovic, also making his first Anfield appearance, had volleyed over Alberto Moreno's far-post cross and headed wide.
While Lallana was deservedly booked for a late challenge on Tom Cleverley, who made his debut after a deadline day loan move from Manchester United, Mason missed Senderos' kick at Balotelli and chose to take no action after Alan Hutton appeared to rake his studs down the Italian's knee.
Balotelli had the first chance of the second half, heading wide Steven Gerrard's corner.
But Villa's plan to smother Liverpool continued to work and even the introduction of Liverpool strikers Rickie Lambert and Fabio Borini for Balotelli and Lazar Markovic failed to produce the chances needed to rescue a point.
The closest Liverpool came was when Philippe Coutinho bent a shot around Villa goalkeeper Brad Guzan only for it to rebound back off the post.
"Not many teams will come here and get a win," Agbonlahor said. "We showed a lot of character and I thought it was a brilliant performance from everyone."
Villa fans left chanting "We're going to win the league" after a third win in four matches put the central England club second in the table.
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