2:45pm, live in the US on Setanta
Last 4 head-to-head:
1-3 Villa (h) 08.23.09
5-0 Liverpool (h) 03.22.09
0-0 (a) 08.31.08
2-2 (h) 01.21.08
Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-0 Wolves (h); 0-2 Portsmouth (a); 2-1 Wigan (h)
Villa: 0-3 Arsenal (a); 1-0 Stoke (h); 2-0 Sunderland (a)
Liverpool: Torres 11; Benayoun, Gerrard, Kuyt 5; Ngog 4; Babel, Johnson 2; Skrtel 1
Villa: Agbonlahor 8; Carew, Milner 4; Dunne, Young 3; Heskey 2; Collins, Cuellar, Davies 1
Referee: Peter Walton
Guess at a squad:
Johnson Carragher Agger Insua
Kuyt Benayoun Aurelio
So, will we see the same team as Saturday’s? I wouldn’t bet on it, but I’m not a betting man (mainly because I usually lose).
I guess the big question is whether Aquilani will start again. Liverpool could keep the same formation as last time, with Kuyt back in, Benayoun on the left, and Aurelio relegated to the bench or at left back. Or Liverpool could go 4-4-2 with Kuyt and Torres up top and a midfield of Benayoun-Gerrard-Lucas-Aurelio – which is probably my preferred option given that Torres could do with as much support as possible, although we saw how Wigan were able to exploit gaps in that formation. And then there’s the above option: dropping Gerrard deeper for more defensive steel with Benayoun taking up his natural role behind the striker. Your guess is as good as mine, but it'll probably one of those three options.
However, I am fairly certain Kuyt will be back in the side after missing out against Wolves. His omission isn’t the reason Liverpool won, and his work ethic will be crucial, especially up against either Downing or Milner on the left (Ashley Young’s suspended for five yellows). I know that defending isn’t the right-winger’s main task, but Kuyt will be needed to protect an underperforming Glen Johnson at the very least. Plus, there’s his habit of big game goals (*fingers crossed*).
And, as usual this season, I still worry about the back four. Saturday saw Liverpool’s first clean sheet in five games and only the sixth in 19 league contests after keeping 11 at the midpoint last season. At least the central pairing of Carra and Agger have steadied, but the fullbacks are the weak link of late, with Johnson out of form for more than a month. Hopefully Glen will have a better chance of settling with Young suspended, but you can’t underestimate the threat of Milner (I’ve been massively impressed with his progress under O’Neill) or Downing (who almost always played well against Liverpool while at Boro).
Villa do have a day’s less rest because of playing Sunday, a 3-0 loss to Arsenal. But that was their first defeat since November 4th. Until yesterday, Villa tallied five straight wins (including one at Old Trafford) and were unbeaten in nine. Over the same period, Liverpool’s won four, drawn four, and lost three.
I promise that if Liverpool fail to pick up three points tomorrow, I’m done writing about the “race” for fourth place. I should have stopped a few weeks ago, but you can’t help look at the table and “plan” for the future. Liverpool desperately need some sort of winning streak; the last successive victories came over Debrecen and Everton in the first week of November. The last two straight league wins came at the end of September, against West Ham and Hull (17th and 19th respectively). And with games against Villa and Spurs imminent – two of Liverpool’s closest competitors – we’ll soon know how much of this season is salvageable.