11am eastern, live on FSC.
Last 4 head-to-head:
2-2 (h) 01.21.08
2-1 Liverpool (a) 06.11.07
0-0 (a) 03.18.07
3-1 Liverpool (h) 10.28.06
Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 Standard (h); 2-1 Boro (h); 1-0 Sunderland (a)
Villa: 1-1 FH Hafnarfjordur (h); 2-3 Stoke (a); 4-2 City (h)
Referee: Martin Atkinson
Guess at a squad:
Arbeloa Carragher Skrtel Dossena
Kuyt Mascherano Alonso Benayoun
Naturally, as soon as the players who starred at the Olympics were ready to return, there’s news that Gerrard’s out for the next 10 days at best. It’ll be a race to see if he can return to fitness before the match against Manchester United on September 13.
Gerrard’s replacement should be whoever’s fitter: Mascherano or Lucas. With their returns, I had hoped we’d see one of the two paired with Alonso and Gerrard further forward, ideally in a 4-2-3-1 with Kuyt, Benayoun or Keane on either side of him. But with the captain out, I imagine we’ll see the same 4-4-2 formation we’ve seen in all the games so far this season, with Masch or Lucas stepping into central midfield with Xabi.
In the post-match write-up following the Boro game, I wondered whether it was by plan that Alonso was getting forward more often than in seasons past. If he’s paired with Mascherano on Sunday, it’ll be essential that continues. Alonso has the ability to influence a game in this manner, and with Mascherano covering in a holding role, Xabi should have license to get forward, distribute the ball in the final third, and launch shots from distance.
Liverpool will still need to get more from the wings, but I honestly don’t know where it’ll come from on Sunday. Like many, I’ve been thrilled with El Zhar’s performances off the bench, but I doubt he’s ready to start (or that Rafa’s confident enough to play him from the start). El Zhar on the flank, with Kuyt or Keane as a supporting striker, has looked good when we’ve seen it though.
Similar goes for Babel, who’s going to have to show more consistency before he becomes a routine starter. And even if the Riera deal is tied up before the weekend, I doubt he’ll play any part before the international break. The only other option is Aurelio, but he’s always more likely to play at left back than in the midfield.
So even though Kuyt and Benayoun haven’t delivered enough on the wings, and Liverpool’s build-up stuttered because one or the other ends up congesting the middle, I imagine they’ll be starters for the 5th game in a row. Which I’m not entirely thrilled about, but it’s the way Benitez wants the team to play.
I’d be very surprised if Martin O’Neill didn’t have the troops fired up for this one. He’s been furious at Liverpool over the Gareth Barry saga all summer (you’re the one that kept it in the media, Martin), ultimately sticking an £18m price tag on the midfielder. While Barry is an outstanding player, that fee’s a laugh.
So it’ll be interesting to see how the Villa players, especially Barry, react. The fans will certainly be fired up. While Barry will probably be a dangerman given the summer drama, I’m most frightened of Ashley Young, who’s an incredibly pacey winger that can also deliver an excellent free kick. Agbonlahor’s speed can also cause a threat on the counter attack.
Villa have improved in each of O’Neill’s seasons, and look likely to cement a place amongst the top 6 or 7 teams in the country. Liverpool may have made hard work of the first four matches, but this should be the toughest, and the fact that it’s at Villa Park makes it even more difficult. Liverpool won this fixture last season thanks to some last second heroics by Gerrard. Who will step up this time?