30 March 2013

Liverpool at Aston Villa 03.31.13

8:30am ET, live in the US on FSC

Last four head-to-head:
1-3 Villa (h) 12.15.12
1-1 (h) 04.07.12
2-0 Liverpool (a) 12.18.11
0-1 Villa (a) 05.22.11

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-3 Southampton (a); 3-2 Tottenham (h); 4-0 Wigan (a)
Villa: 3-2 QPR (h); 2-1 Reading (a); 0-1 City (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 22; Gerrard 8; Sturridge 4; Downing 3; Agger, Coutinho, Enrique, Henderson, Skrtel, Sterling 2; Cole, Johnson, Şahin 1
Villa: Benteke 13; Weimann 6; Agbonlahor 5; Bent 2; Clark, El Ahmadi, Holman, Lowton, N'Zogbia 1

Referee: Lee Mason

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Carragher Agger Enrique
Gerrard Lucas
Downing Suarez Coutinho

Everyone remembers the last match against Villa, yes? Let's make sure that doesn't happen again, especially since Liverpool are coming off yet another unexpected, unnecessary 1-3 setback at Southampton.

Carragher, Lucas, and Reina should all return from knocks which kept them out of the starting XI at Southampton.

Should Liverpool worry about fielding four out-and-out attackers? It's left the side massively exposed at times this season, even worse in the first half against Southampton with Lucas unavailable. That seems the only line-up question. Whether Coutinho and Downing flank Sturridge and Suarez, or Henderson comes in on the left – as against Norwich, for example – or Henderson plays as the #10 with Suarez as a wide forward and either Coutinho or Downing left out.

Otherwise, as long as there are no last minute casualties, Lucas and Gerrard will again form the double pivot, Reina will return in goal, and Johnson, Carragher, Agger, and Enrique will be the back four.

If Villa sit similarly deep as the last meeting – and I'd expect they will – Johnson and Enrique will have to be more effective in attack than Johnson and Downing were in the last meeting. Liverpool's fullbacks were, by far, the free players in attack, but only created three half-chances and combined for an abysmal 74% pass accuracy in the final third. All too often, Liverpool were reliant on crosses, completing just four of 37 in open play, a tactic that often failed with a big lump of a striker in attack last season, let alone this season.

In addition, I'd hope Carragher has a better time against Benteke than Skrtel did in the last meeting. The Belgian scored two of Villa's three goals and set up the third for Weimann, winning 10 of 17 aerial duels. Guzan to Benteke was Villa's most frequent pass combination. Villa will be direct, Benteke will be burly, and Liverpool simply must cope with it better than in mid-December at Anfield.

Aston Villa, while just three points outside of the drop zone, have played well over the last six matches. In the last two months, they've beaten fellow relegation strugglers QPR and Reading as well as West Ham, earned a 3-3 draw at Everton, and narrowly lost to both Arsenal and City.

The international break was and wasn't kind to the Villans. The extended time off should allow Baker, Bent, and El Ahmadi to return from injuries but both Ciaran Clark and Brett Holman are doubtful with knocks sustained while with their national teams. In addition, Herd, Albrighton, Gardner, and Dunne are long-term casualties, but Fabian Delph will return from suspension.

In the last few matches, Villa have moved away from the three/five-at-the-back formation that so frustrated Liverpool in the last meeting, using it infrequently since being hammered by Chelsea, Tottenham, and Wigan after their win at Anfield. Lambert may return to the formation given how well it worked against Liverpool in the last meeting, but if Villa stick with the system most often used over the last couple of months (and assuming all the injury doubts don't play), the starting XI should be Guzan; Lowton, Vlaar, Baker, Bennett; Delph, Westwood, Bannan; Weimann, Benteke, Agbonlahor. El Ahmadi or Sylla could replace Delph, while Lambert will probably risk Clark if possible, but otherwise, injuries mean Villa have a notable lack of options.

Once again, Liverpool are in the position of needing to respond to yet another setback, this one two weeks in the memory thanks to an international break. The loss to Southampton makes it even more difficult to catch Everton and Arsenal, three and five points ahead of Liverpool and each with a game in hand, let alone that not-gonna-happen dream deferred of fourth. Qualification for the Europa League will remain a goal, but more importantly, Liverpool have eight matches to return to the form demonstrated against Norwich, Swansea, Spurs etc., continue the incremental progress made over the course of the season, and prove that setbacks like the last match against Southampton or the reverse fixture against tomorrow's opponents in December will become rarer and rarer occurrences.

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