14 December 2012

Liverpool v Aston Villa 12.15.12

10am ET, live in the US on Fuel TV

Fuel TV? *shrugs* If memory serves, it's only the second time there has been a Premier League match on Fuel TV. The other was Liverpool's last day loss at Swansea seven months ago. It's channel 618 on DirecTV, if that helps you.

Last four head-to-head:
1-1 (h) 04.07.12
2-0 Liverpool (a) 12.18.11
0-1 Villa (a) 05.22.11
3-0 Liverpool (h) 12.06.10

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 3-2 West Ham (a); 1-0 Udinese (a); 1-0 Southampton (h)
Villa: 4-1 Norwich (a); 0-0 Stoke (h); 1-1 QPR (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 10; Agger, Cole, Enrique, Gerrard, Johnson, Şahin, Skrtel, Sterling 1
Villa: Benteke 3; Bent, Weimann 2; Agbonlahor, Clark, El Ahmadi, Holman, Lowton 1

Referee: Neil Swarbrick

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Agger Downing
Gerrard Allen
Sterling Suarez Shelvey

Once again, there are the usual few line-up questions for Liverpool.

It appears Enrique's out for another match, quoted on the official site yesterday saying that he didn't know if he'd be fit – which means he probably won't be fit. Rodgers says he'll be a late fitness test, but it seems when that's the case, those players don't usually play. His most likely replacement remains Downing – cue bitching and moaning – but Wisdom, with Johnson moving to left-back, or Robinson are also possibilities. Underused, unlikely possibilities, but possibilities nonetheless. I made a big deal of ex-players featuring against their former club last weekend, but I'm doubtful whether that magic will hold true for Downing. Because, sadly, I'm doubtful about anything to do with Downing. Incidentally, he did next to nothing in both starts against Villa last season, but hey there's a first time for everything.

Lucas-Gerrard-Allen has been the preferred midfield since the Brazilian returned from injury, but this could be a match where Rodgers tests his options, with both Şahin or Henderson capable of playing in Allen's position. It's been strange to see the on-loan Turkish midfielder so out-of-favor; the broken nose suffered against Udinese shouldn't preclude Şahin from featuring, but we haven't seen him in the Premiership since November 11. Aside from a disappointing match – for all involved – at Tottenham, Henderson's steadily improved since coming on as an early sub against Wigan a month ago, seizing his newly-founded chances to impress.

Finally, there's the usual debate over who joins Suarez and Sterling up front. Shelvey reclaiming a role on the left, as against Southampton, seems the most probable choice, but Cole, Suso, Assaidi are other alternatives – and probably in that order – along with Downing if he doesn't start in defense. Rodgers may well stick with Cole after his performance last Sunday, but I don't really see the point in pushing one's luck. Shelvey did well there against Southampton, would be heavily involved in the final-third buildup, and had a good match in an unfamiliar striking role against West Ham.

Liverpool may have just scored three goals for only the third time in the league so far this season, but Suarez's return will be a welcome sight. He was Liverpool's best player in this fixture last season, scorer of the lone goal, and should be rested and raring to go after a week off.

Aston Villa are currently 16th in the league, two points outside of the relegation zone. And all of six points behind Liverpool. They're only out of the bottom three because of a five-match unbeaten run, with two draws and three losses after being demolished 0-5 by Manchester City, drawing Arsenal, QPR, and Stoke and beating Reading and Norwich City (the latter in the League Cup). Like Liverpool, they've found some semblance of form after a rocky start in a new manager's system.

Wednesday's Capital One Cup quarterfinal victory featured a full strength line-up, with Villa scoring four goals for just the second time since February 2011 (the other was a 4-2 extra-time win in the same competition 10 weeks ago against a second-string Manchester City). The Midlands club have scored the fewest goals in the league so far this season, tallying just 12. If I had to guess, I'd assume they'll be buoyed rather than fatigued by their midweek match, especially on the back of a good run of form.

Villa have played three at the back in the last two fixtures. The starting line-up against Norwich was Given; Lichaj, Herd, Clark; Baker, El Ahmadi, Delph, Lowton; Holman, Benteke, Bent. They used a similar style in the 0-0 against Stoke City, with Guzan, Westwood, Bannan, and Agbonlahor in place of Given, El Ahmadi, Delph, and Bent. Chances are tomorrow's XI will look fairly similar to last weekend's. Weimann – who came on for Bent and scored two of the three Villa goals in the last 12 minutes on Wednesday – is also a likely starter, whether in place of Holman or pushing the Australian deeper in midfield.

Villa have one of the few squads both thinner and younger than Liverpool's. And it's a squad that's also struggled with injuries. Gardner, Dunne, and Petrov are all long-term absentees; Bent was injured in Tuesday's match at Norwich; and defenders Enda Stevens and Ron Vlaar are both questionable. The latter two injuries are seemingly what prompted the shift to three at the back.

Liverpool and Villa are also the two teams with the worst luck when it comes to penalties. Liverpool have conceded four, Villa three – two of the most penalized teams in the league. Neither have won a spot kick so far this season, two of the five teams who've failed to do so. I wouldn't be surprised if that changes tomorrow, although I absolutely don't want to guess which side will benefit. Hopefully, we'll get to have the long-promised party.

Last season, this was a typical Liverpool fixture. Liverpool start the better side, are arguably wrongly denied an opener, concede an unlikely goal, and spend the next 80 minutes trying to redress their own wrongs, able to get a late equalizer but not a winner despite near-constant pressure. We've seen similar in matches against Sunderland, Newcastle, and Chelsea so far this season.

The hope is that last weekend's fightback against West Ham was something of a turning point, proof that the team can push past adversity and actually, you know, come from behind to win a game. Hopefully they won't need to come from behind tomorrow. And facing a side that's beaten Liverpool at Anfield just once in the last decade (albeit with three draws) should be an excellent opportunity to build on the confidence gained with last Sunday's heartening win.

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