10 August 2007

Liverpool at Aston Villa 08.11.07

12:15pm, live in the US on FSC

Last 4 meetings:
0-0 (a) 03.18.07
3-1 Liverpool (h) 10.28.06
3-1 Liverpool (h) 04.29.06
2-0 Liverpool (a) 11.05.05

Referee: Steve Bennett

Guess at a squad:
Finnan Carragher Agger Riise
Pennant Gerrard Alonso Kewell
Torres Kuyt

Well, let’s hope this goes better than at Aston Villa last season. Because that’s all I could think of while brainstorming this preview. And Liverpool usually does well against Villa.

There were some bad losses last season, but the draw at Villa in March was near the top of the list of games that almost gave me an aneurysm. Liverpool was lackadaisical, unimaginative, tentative and sloppy, Sissoko and Mascherano started together in central midfield, which limited Liverpool’s chances offensively, and in totality it was frustrating to the nth degree, especially given where Liverpool was at that stage of the season. All the much-analyzed away form problems that Liverpool needs to overcome were on display.

Naturally, on a related note, I’m expecting to see a fairly attacking line-up tomorrow. First and foremost, I’m expecting to see Gerrard play in the center, probably with Alonso. Pennant’s progress on the right will allow Stevie to see more time in the center, and while I’ll continue to defend Gerrard being used on the flank at times (I promise, it’ll happen), Stevie will be happier and more influential coming through the middle, and I expect to see it show in his goal tally.

Also, Mascherano only recently returned from the Copa America, and didn’t start any of the preseason games, while there’s a time and place for Sissoko, and I don’t think it’s a game like this. Honestly, I think he’d lose possession too often, especially in the final third, as Liverpool should dominate the time on the ball, and his effective hassling, tackling, and overall destruction in midfield won’t be as important as it would be against different opposition.

Tomorrow should also be the first sight of Torres and Kuyt in the league, which I reckon will end up being the primary pairing. Obviously, there will be rotation -- Crouch, Voronin, and Babel will all assuredly get time up front -- but I think these two have the potential to do the most damage.

An interview on the official site with Kuyt earlier this week said a lot, but the part that stood out was “Fernando likes to come deeper for the ball, so if I play alongside him there's the chance for me to play higher up the park, which I enjoy. That's more how I was used to playing with Feyenoord.” Not to toot my own horn, but this is how I’ve been hoping it will go, and why I’ve taken a flier on Kuyt as my top scorer for the season. He works his ass off, but isn’t effective enough as a link-up striker with his pace, passing, and first touch at times. However, combined with Torres, he should have more opportunities to get into the box, and should have more space, as Torres will draw defenders away from him.

I also would like to see Kewell start, as Babel isn’t ready to take over on the left (or right, for that matter). There’s a distinct possibility Benayoun could play on the left with Pennant on the right; we saw that a fair amount during preseason, and both players are able to switch flanks during the course of the game, which Benitez looks likely to utilize more often. But Kewell is more of an out-and-out left midfielder than Benayoun is, can also switch flanks, and if he’s fit (admittedly, seemingly always a question), I’d rather see him feature. If Liverpool struggles to break down Villa, then Benayoun or Babel will be available to come on, but Kewell on from the start should provide penetration and directness, and the lad’s got a huge point to prove.

Villa is a better team now than in either game against Liverpool last season. Reo-Coker will be a valuable addition, Luke Moore’s finally fit, Agbonlahor’s a very good young player, and both January signings, Young and Carew, have had a full preseason to further adapt to Villa’s style of play. Martin O’Neill truly has done a good job, which isn’t all that surprising given his CV, and I expect Villa to compete for a European place this season. That said, I don’t really fancy their defense even though it’s mostly the same unit that kept Liverpool out last March, and it’s an additional boon that Sorensen’s out injured (looks like they’ll be signing Carson on loan for the season, but that’ll have no effect on tomorrow).

I’ve been on pins and needles waiting for tomorrow since May 24th. And even though it’s the first match of the season, which brings a mountain of mitigating statements, it’s a good match to see how Liverpool will develop. Liverpool hasn’t won an opening day game since 2002 (amusingly enough, against Villa). It’s away, against a team who frustrated Liverpool last season, a team who started last season at a torrid pace, and a team that should finish in the top half of the table. We’ve been talking about how Liverpool’s improved, and how much the new boys are going to help. Now we get to see it.

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