23 August 2013

Liverpool at Aston Villa 08.24.13

12:30pm ET, live in the US on NBC

Last four head-to-head:
2-1 Liverpool (a) 03.31.13
1-3 Villa (h) 12.15.12
1-1 (h) 04.07.12
2-0 Liverpool (a) 12.18.11

Last matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 Stoke (h)
Aston Villa: 1-2 Chelsea (a); 3-1 Arsenal (a)

Referee: Mark Clattenburg

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Toure Agger Enrique
Gerrard Lucas
Henderson Aspas Coutinho

I'm tempted to say same as against Stoke, which I'm almost always tempted to do after a reassuring victory. Liverpool played well and Liverpool won, despite the terrifying final 10 minutes when Liverpool should and would have conceded an equalizer if not for Mignolet, and Liverpool mostly dealt with Stoke's burly threat. Maybe it'll be the same XI in a different shape: Aspas staying on the right with Henderson central, for more heft in the middle of the pitch.

But maybe, away from home, Rodgers opts for a less attacking line-up, knowing how Villa punished Liverpool on the counter last season, replacing Aspas with Allen, keeping the versatile Henderson on the right but also using Allen for a more solid three-man midfield. Stifle the center of the pitch, ensure that there's enough high pressing so Lucas and Gerrard can both sit deep to protect against fast breaks and long balls toward Benteke and Agbonlahor, and try to control possession. The first thought is that Liverpool might not have enough firepower in that XI, but with Sturridge and Coutinho on the pitch, there are usually goals to be found somewhere.

13 sides finished below Liverpool last season. Liverpool have to play two of the three who gave them the toughest matches last season in the first two matches of this campaign; they won't face West Brom until the end of October.

Stoke presented a different set of problems than Villa undoubtedly will. Both are strong in the air and physical in midfield and defense, but Villa's main threat comes from the frighteningly fast and strong forward line.

In two games so far this season, at Arsenal and Chelsea, Benteke has three goals. In two matches against Liverpool last season, Benteke had three goals and an assist, playing a role in every goal Villa scored in those two matches. He is one of the best strikers in the league: dominant in the air but much more than just that, with a wicked left foot and clever link-up play. Agger won just one of his five aerial duels against Stoke, losing all four contested in Liverpool's half. Toure won a marginally more reassuring four of nine (three of six in Liverpool's half), but both will be thoroughly tested by Benteke's prowess. As Bass Tuned to Red pointed out yesterday, Villa's tactic against both Arsenal and Chelsea was to hit long balls toward Benteke when he was pushing towards one of the fullbacks: Arsenal's left-back and Chelsea's right-back. Neither Johnson nor Enrique are especially good in the air as well, which bodes poorly. Liverpool will always have to have at least one covering defender, and Lucas is most likely going to be a very busy man as well, mopping up second balls and protecting against midfield runners charging forward.

Agbonlahor has been almost as crucial in Villa's two matches, winning both penalties against Arsenal and setting up Benteke's goal against Chelsea, finally marrying his blazing speed with more intelligent decision-making. Glen Johnson will have his hands full of that as well, and will probably need to scale back his forays forward.

But Villa's defense is also much more resilient – the side that gave up eight against Chelsea last season wasn't fazed by conceding early against both Arsenal and Chelsea this season, coming back to score a first-half equalizer in both matches, although both Nathan Baker and Ciaran Clark will undergo late fitness tests. The midfield's also more cohesive, with Delph especially showing signs of improvement in the first two matches. Villa's most likely XI is Guzan; Lowton,Vlaar, Clark, Luna; El Ahmadi, Westwood, Delph; Weimann, Benteke, Agbonlahor.

The second half of March's match at Villa Park seems cause for slight optimism, that Liverpool might have solved the problems which bedeviled them over the first 135 minutes that the two sides played last season. Liverpool overhauled a deficit with two goals in 15 minutes while Coutinho ran riot, then shut up shop, pressing effectively, limiting opportunities. Gerrard cleared Benteke's lone chance off the line, and Liverpool held firm when they'd too often conceded in previous matches.

But this is a better Villa side that at any time last season, including when they were at their best against Liverpool. They handily beat an imploding Arsenal, and should have earned at least a draw at Chelsea, denied potential game-changing moments by two referee decisions.

Liverpool may have passed its first test against Stoke, albeit with less than flying colors, but tomorrow will be a much sterner exam.

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