Any hopes Sir Alex Ferguson may have harboured that Liverpool would slip up against Aston Villa were emphatically dashed as The Reds hit five at Anfield.

Steven Gerrard was at his irrepressible best, bagging his first Premier League hat-trick as Liverpool closed the gap on Manchester United at the top of the table to a solitary point.

It was as one-sided as it could have been as Rafa Benitez’s side took the upper hand with Dirk Kuyt rifling the home side ahead inside seven minutes.

And it got worse for Villa as Albert Riera volleyed spectacularly past Brad Friedel before Gerrard netted the first of two penalties before the half time whistle.

The Liverpool skipper slotted calmly past Friedel from a free-kick four minutes into the second half before the Villa keeper was perhaps harshly sent off for upending Fernando Torres when through on goal.

There was no mercy from Gerrard, though, as he slotted past substitute keeper Brad Guzan to complete the rout.

While Liverpool stroked the ball around with purpose and intent in the early exchanges, the question that was perhaps adorning the lips of many Reds fans inside Anfield was ‘What if?’

Xabi Alonso, who was close to a Reds exit in the close season, was the principle puppeteer, probing and prodding the ball into a succession of dangerous areas. The man who was being lined up to replace him, Gareth Barry, was a bystander as the furious pace of the game left him looking on.

The question was equally applicable when looking at both teams’ forward lines. Villa had left the recently maligned Gabriel Agbonlahor on the bench to allow former Liverpool player and reported January target Emile Heskey to continue up front, this time alongside John Carew.

On the evidence of this display, how Liverpool fans must have thanked their lucky stars England’s ‘battering ram’ was playing against them rather than for them.

It didn’t take Benitez’s side long to grab the upper hand thanks to a rifled finish from their forward-cum-winger Kuyt.

The Reds had served notice of their intent with early glimpses of goal falling for Martin Skrtel and Gerrard, before Kuyt powered home on seven minutes.

Gerrard whipped in a free kick from the left that Alonso headed against the bar, and Kuyt followed up to gobble up the rebound.

Liverpool had their tails up and were full of the confidence gained from back-to-back thumpings of Manchester United and Real Madrid. It was one-sided and the eventual scoreline had an air of inevitability about it as Liverpool piled forward.

Gerrard twice came close to doubling the advantage with Gerrard stabbing wide from close range with a tight angle getting the better of him on two occasions.

Villa, perhaps, could consider themselves unlucky not to have pulled themselves back into the game as Pepe Reina was twice called on to open his top drawer and pull out cracking saves.

Both came from Carew, the first a flicked volley that Reina tipped over on 20 minutes, the second a header the Spaniard leapt the width of his goal to claw away within the blink of an eye.

The second goal arrived on 32 minutes and was direct and to the point. A long ball forward from Reina, reminiscent of the hoof that released Andrea Dossena for The Reds fourth against United, found Riera sprinting through the middle.

The Spaniard let fly, dispatching the bouncing ball with a flourish past Friedel and in off the underside of the crossbar.

The third goal effectively ended the game as a competitive spectacle. Quite what Martin O’Neill sees in Nigel Reo-Coker as a full back is hard to fathom.

He looked confused and ill at ease in the position from the first whistle at Anfield and was responsible for giving Liverpool a three-goal advantage at the break. It was his clumsy tackle on Riera that resulted in Steven Gerrard firing home the first of his two goals from the spot.

After finding the net from 12 yards against United at Old Trafford, the Liverpool captain continued his impressive penalty scoring record, netting his 12th from his last 13 efforts.

The break could not come soon enough for Villa who had been run ragged at the tail end of the first half, but the respite was predictably short-lived.

It was four minutes after the restart when Gerrard calmly slotted Liverpool’s fourth and put the final nail into any hopes O’Neill’s side may have had about dragging themselves back into the match.

Dirk Kuyt was up-ended on the edge of the area, after a neat turn and Gerrard stepped up to side-foot the free kick out of the reach of Friedel and into the bottom corner.

Alonso dragged a chance wide of Friedel’s goal before the game took a cruel turn for the Villa keeper.

As if conceding four wasn’t bad enough, the American was given his marching orders on 62 minutes for tripping Torres as he ran through on goal.

The Liverpool striker had rounded the Villa stopper, who pulled out of the challenge too late to prevent Torres from crashing into his body.

Gerrard was not in the mood for charity and slammed the penalty past substitute keeper Guzan.

It was then simply a matter of whether The Reds would inflict further punishment and rub salt into Villa's open wounds.

But that was that for the goals. Lucas sidefooted a cross from Riera wide of  while Javier Mascherano hit a left-footed drive that drew a fine stop from Guzan.

The result capped off a fine week for Liverpool and Benitez in particular. After putting put pen-to-paper on a new five-year deal, his team hit five to reignite their title challenge.

In other games Sunday, Micah Richards headed the only goal of the game as Manchester City beat ten-man Sunderland 1-0 at the City of Manchester Stadium, while a late Ben Watson goal earned Wigan a 1-0 win against Hull at the JJB Stadium.

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