12:30pm ET, live in the US on NBC
Last four head-to-head:
1-0 Liverpool (h) 08.24.13
2-1 Liverpool (a) 03.31.13
1-2 Villa (h) 12.15.12
1-1 (h) 04.07.12
Last three matches:
Liverpool: 5-3 Stoke (a); 2-0 Oldham (h); 2-0 Hull (h)
Villa: 1-2 Arsenal (h); 1-2 Sheffield Utd (h); 1-0 Sunderland (h)
Liverpool: Suarez 22; Sturridge 10; Gerrard 4; Sterling 3; Coutinho, Skrtel 2; Agger, Flanagan, Henderson, Moses, Sakho 1
Villa: Benteke 5; Kozak 4; Agbonlahor 3; Bacuna, El Ahmadi 2; Delph, Luna, Weimann, Westwood 1
Referee: Jon Moss
Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Toure Cissokho
Henderson Gerrard Lucas Coutinho
According to Rodgers, Liverpool's injury crisis is finally easing, with Sturridge fit enough to start, Allen back in training, and Sakho not far away.
Available for an impressive 25 minute cameo last weekend, featuring a goal and an assist, it's safe to assume Sturridge will go straight into the starting XI. Which means – given Henderson's ubiquity, used in three or four different roles this season and the only outfield player to start every league match – one of Sterling or Coutinho will have to make way. A month ago, I'd have said Coutinho was certain to keep his place, but Sterling's looked better, and had a bigger impact, over the last few weeks. Still, I think Rodgers will stick with the Brazilian, playing his usual 60 or so minutes before being replaced by the speedy Sterling. But if Sterling does keep his place, you'd think it'd be as much a 4-3-3 as the 4-2-2-2 we usually see with both Sturridge and Suarez fit, similar in style to the last 25 minutes against Stoke.
It's also safe to assume that Sturridge is much more likely to start than Sakho or Allen given his participation last week, but both of the latter could also feature is Rodgers deems them ready. With Agger still out, Sakho would be an improvement on either Toure or Skrtel – you know, an actual left-footed defender and all – most likely replacing the former if available, although we're probably stuck with the Skrtel-Toure pairing for at least one more match. Allen's return could see Lucas dropped if Rodgers remains serious about using Gerrard as the deepest midfielder; he's vastly more suited to the role that Lucas played at Stoke.
Aston Villa have won just one of the seven league matches since December 8, beating last place Sunderland 1-0 at the Stadium of Light, drawing 1-1 against Swansea and losing the other five. But three of those five losses have been by a single goal, narrow defeats against Palace, Stoke, and Arsenal – the loss to Arsenal last time out was probably the best match Villa's played in two months – while conceding two at Fulham and three against United.
Villa have vacillated between 4-3-3 and 5-3-2 this season. They played the latter in the previous match against Arsenal, starting Guzan; Lowton, Vlaar, Baker, Clark, Luna; El Ahmadi, Westwood, Delph; Agbonlahor, Benteke. Given Baker's frightening injury against Arsenal, I'd expect a return to four-at-the-back, whether a 4-3-3 or a 4-4-2. They simply don't have the personnel for a five-man defense with both Baker and Okore absent.
If it's 4-4-2, it'll probably look like last week's match against Arsenal after Baker went off: Guzan; Lowton, Vlaar, Clark, Luna; El Ahmadi, Westwood, Delph, Bacuna; Agbonlahor, Benteke. If it's the 4-3-3 we've seen previously this season, it'll be: Guzan; Lowton, Vlaar, Baker, Luna; Bacuna/El Ahmadi, Westwood, Delph; Weimann, Benteke, Agbonlahor. Villa lined up in a 4-3-3 in the last two matches against Liverpool, having used five-at-the-back in the soul-killing 1-3 victory at Anfield a little more than a year ago.
In addition to Baker and Okore, Kozak, Herd, and N'Zogbia are also out injured. Grant Holt, signed from Norwich on loan, is in contention in either formation, but it seems slightly too soon, having only started training on Wednesday. Villa also announced the loan signing of Chelsea's Ryan Bertrand today, but if it's too soon for Holt, it's definitely too soon for Bertrand.
Regardless of the formation, Villa will be dangerous in one regard. The same regard that led to three goals in this fixture last season. The same regard that led Stoke to scoring two of their three goals against Liverpool last week. The counter-attack.
Villa press well high up the pitch, but also get back quickly to defend deeply. Agbonlahor, Benteke, and Weimann rent Liverpool asunder at Anfield last season, and despite each's drop in scoring form, remain capable of doing so tomorrow. And that deep defense restricted Liverpool to just five shots when these sides met in August, by far the lowest of Rodgers' tenure. Despite Villa's season-long injury issues at the back, they've conceded 14 fewer goals than at this point last season, and are consequently four points and five places better off in the table. And that's after the struggles they've endured over the last six weeks.
Prior to beating Liverpool last season, Villa had scored all of two goals in the previous five matches. And then proceeded to lose their next three by a combined 15-0 margin. Form has mattered little in this fixture in recent years. As we've said all season long, Liverpool just need to keep winning, and it matters little whether it's by mauling another bottom-half side at Anfield or eking out a terrifying, narrow win.