12:30pm ET, live in the US on NBC
Last four head-to-head:
2-2 (h) 1.18.14
1-0 Liverpool (a) 08.24.13
2-1 Liverpool (a) 03.31.13
1-3 Villa (h) 12.15.12
Last three matches:
Liverpool: 3-0 Tottenham (a); 1-3 City (a), 2-1 Southampton (h)
Villa: 2-1 Hull (h); 0-1 Leyton Orient (h); 0-0 Newcastle (h)
Liverpool: Sterling 2; Gerrard, Moreno, Sturridge 1
Villa: Weimann 2; Agbonlahor 1
Referee: Lee Mason
Guess at a line-up:
Manquillo Lovren Sakho Moreno
Lallana Balotelli Sterling
Well that was a productive international break. Sturridge? Out for two to three weeks. Can? Out for six weeks. Allen? Doubtful with a knee problem. With Johnson, Skrtel, and Flanagan still carrying the injuries incurred before the break. Fantastic.
At least Adam Lallana is finally fit, and looks almost certain to make his debut. And I'm curious to see where it'll be: most likely on the flanks of a 4-3-3, especially given Sturridge's absence, but he also seems capable of filling a midfield role in that formation, similar to how Coutinho plays in the position.
Thanks to Liverpool's new-found depth, even with the aforementioned absences, there are other options. 4-4-2 diamond with Lambert, Sterling, or Markovic playing off Balotelli. 4-3-3 with Markovic on the flank and either Coutinho or Lallana in midfield. Even a 4-2-3-1 with Gerrard and Lucas if Allen's really out, as we saw against Southampton, although I hope this won't be the choice.
That Coutinho travelled to Brazil for this week's friendlies, coming on as a sub against both Colombia and Ecuador, seemingly makes him less likely to start, but given Liverpool's injuries, I expect he'll have to play some role tomorrow. There's also a rumor that Sterling will be rested. Which makes sense, as he's played a ton of matches recently, including two 90 minutes for England over the last week, and Liverpool have its first Champions League match in nearly five years on Tuesday. If that's the case, Markovic seemingly has to start opposite Lallana/Coutinho if it's 4-3-3, or it'll be Balotelli and Lambert in the 4-4-2 diamond with a midfield composed of something like Coutinho, Lallana, Henderson, and Gerrard. Assuming Allen is out with injury and Lucas remains out of favor.
Sure, it's still incredibly early, but Aston Villa are currently a surprising third. It hasn't been the toughest schedule: Hull and Newcastle at home and Stoke away, but they've still taken seven of nine points. The next four matches – at Liverpool, v Arsenal, at Chelsea, v Manchester City – will be far more of a test.
But Villa's still a side that's given Rodgers' Liverpool problems in the past: a supremely disappointing 2-2 draw at Anfield and narrow, fortunate 1-0 win at Villa last season; that 1-3 loss at Anfield in 2012-13. Each of those setbacks featured some self-incurred Liverpool struggles – the insane 4-2-4 formation in the 2-2 draw; supreme defensive shelling after an early goal in the 1-0 win; multiple defensive mistakes in the 1-3 loss – but Villa have a template, and it's a template that other opponents have used to punish Liverpool before. A deep, rigid, determined defense packing the final third, then quick and dangerous with long balls and pace on the counter-attack, especially though Weimann and Agbonlahor.
Tom Cleverley, picked up on loan from United on deadline day, seems the only likely change from Villa's last XI against Stoke, most likely replacing Kieran Richardson. Guzan; Hutton, Senderos, Vlaar, Cissokho; Westwood, Cleverley, Delph; N'Zogbia, Agbonlahor, Weimann. The same eleven players have started all three of Villa's league matches so far. Paul Lambert loves loves loves a stable side. You may also recognize Villa's current left back. No Aly Cissokho jokes please. Ex-Liverpool players, even terrible ones, have a way of punishing their former club.
This will be as much of a test as Tottenham was two weeks ago, albeit a different test. Then, Liverpool's opponents were more talented, but Liverpool faced a side they'd beaten comprehensively in the last two matches. A side that Liverpool matched up well with, a side prone to going "well shit, we're boned again" once Liverpool went two goals ahead.
Tomorrow's opponent plays a very different style, a style different than Liverpool's three previous opponents this season, has troubled Liverpool in all four previous meetings with Brendan Rodgers as manager, and should be confident given their results from the first three matches of the campaign. For the first time this season, for the first time since losing to Chelsea and drawing at Palace, Liverpool will have to slice and dice through a very packed defense while not doing anything stupid in defense.